By Colleen Long & Tom Hays
Year-end boasts by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that New York is the safest big city in America can ring hollow in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood where the cycle of violence, silence and retribution feels entrenched and where crime seems immune to strategies that have brought record lows across the city.
A burst of gunfire on neighborhood streets this past summer typified the frustrating cycle. A baby boy was struck in the head by a stray bullet and killed as he sat in his stroller. His father, who police believe was the intended target, refused to help police identify the gunman.
Two men have since been arrested in the shooting, which appears gang-related. Bishop Willie Billips, a clergyman who went to the scene that night to comfort the family, said the slow fuse of potential payback probably was lit.
"With a lot of these guys, it's a matter of time," he said. "I'm watching for that."
New York is on track to achieve another all-time low in homicides this year, and police department officials have credited initiatives targeting gangs and domestic violence with reducing murders across the five boroughs. The NYPD also has stood by its controversial strategy of systematically stopping and frisking young men to combat illegal gun possession.
A key to the success has been avoiding complacency, outgoing Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"Sound public policy says that you try to continue to reduce crime to zero," Kelly said. "We know that is impossible, but we should still be striving for that goal."
But community leaders in Brownsville say a big police presence doesn't make up for better schools, more jobs and cleaner, better housing.
"This is not just about blanket police work, this is about economic development and job creation," said Charles Barron, a longtime City Council member whose district includes the neighborhood. "If you're serious about crime, instead of building Yankee Stadium, build some youth centers in our neighborhood, fund our schools and teach science and culturally-relevant topics, build self-esteem."
Citywide, overall crime is down more than 30 percent from 2002 to 2012, according to NYPD crime statistics.
But serious crime, including robberies and assaults, went down only 9 percent in Brownsville, where this year felony assaults are up and the number of shootings the same. In other, once-violent neighborhoods like the south Bronx, serious crime dropped by 25 percent during the decade, according to department statistics.
Homicides citywide were down more than 20 percent, to 333, for 2013, a record low. Killings have been cut nearly in half since Bloomberg took office. But where many large police precincts now typically see only a sprinkling of murders — or none at all — Brownsville has recorded 13 in 2013, three fewer than in 2012 but 10 more than nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The shootings included the wounding in February of an armed 16-year-old by police officers responding to a report of shots fired on a rooftop; a drive-by in July that left six people on the sidewalk wounded; and the unsolved killing in November of a 26-year-old man by a gunman in a white Jeep driving near a public school.
Brownsville, a small, working-class neighborhood in central Brooklyn home to mostly blacks and Hispanics, also has one the city's highest concentrations of public housing developments. The problems that can come with that distinction help fuel a perception that the neighborhood is "stuck in a bad situation," said Eugene O'Donnell, professor of police science at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"If you look at the revitalization of Brooklyn in other areas, the Barclays arena, the yuppies in Williamsburg, and then Brownsville does feel sort of stuck," O'Donnell said. "It's a bit of a sore thumb where there have been great strides in other areas in the city."
The Rev. Cheryl Anthony of the Judah International Christian Center said she and others in the community have focused on changing mindsets and behavior, speaking to caregivers about gangs, helping the poor, providing support and sharing faith. They also hope to bridge the disconnect often seen between police and the people they serve.
"It is a holistic approach," she said. "It takes all of us working together. ... Private sector, the community, neighborhoods, everybody has to be at the table in order to address and solve the problems."
It's also up to residents to discourage the street culture that glorifies guns, said Billips, a 51-year-old clergyman who grew up in Brownsville and who now specializes in working with gang members. He has credited Kelly and police commanders with teaming up with the clergy and community activists there to try to curb crime.
"The gun symbolizes power," he said. "As an example, they say, 'He's always strapped,' 'He's always ready,' 'He's always packing' or whatever. It's like a status. You're known as the guy or the girl that nobody's going to bother."
One of the worst examples a senseless loss of life Billips has ever seen was the Sept. 1 shooting Antiq Hennis, the 1-year-old in the stroller. The bishop recalled the horror of being in the hospital room where the family identified the tiny body.
"They just kept saying, 'We want to see the baby. We want to see the baby,'" he recalled about the parents. "After seeing the body, that's when the reality hit hard."
He's astounded that the father wouldn't help police identify the killer.
"You kill my baby, there ain't no such thing as 'don't snitch,'" he said. "That whole mentality is sick."