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Gun Violence Is Surging In New York, But Advocates Worry About More Policing

Shanduke McPhatter, a non-violence activist, talks to a woman who recently lost a relative to gun violence. The peace vigil took place on the block where 10-year-old Justin Wallace was shot to death.
Shanduke McPhatter, a non-violence activist, talks to a woman who recently lost a relative to gun violence. The peace vigil took place on the block where 10-year-old Justin Wallace was shot to death.

On a recent summer evening in Queens, New York, several dozen people gathered on the street, where birthday balloons tied to a railing floated in the hot breeze.

They were here for Justin Wallace. This would have been his 11th birthday.

He was shot and killed June 5, a bystander as a nearby parking dispute erupted.

"Where do we go from here? Where do we go from here?" yelled one anti-violence activist into the crowd.

It's a question that is on many people's minds. How should communities that have strained relationships with law enforcement deal with gun violence?

New York has seen a 73% rise from June last year. Cities across the country have been seeing a spike in gun violence, with calls for action by the White House.

Biden to unveil wide-ranging crime fighting plan

In addition to more ATF partnerships, the Biden administration plans to unveil Wednesday a wide-ranging crime fighting plan.

Many people want the crime wave addressed; the question is how to do it. Distrust of the police is very real. The communities most affected by the shootings, are among the same ones that have been calling out police brutality, asking for reform.

A few days after Wallace was killed, Mayor Bill De Blasio offered one way to address gun violence: A partnership between NYPD and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, or ATF, to crack down on illegal guns and traffickers.

It's one of five strike forces made up of federal and local law enforcement to be launched strategically across the country. The other areas are Chicago, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C.

"Our firearms trafficking strike forces will investigate and disrupt the networks that channel crime guns into our communities with tragic consequences," U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement Tuesday. "This effort reflects our shared commitment to keep communities safe."

In New York, the ATF will be embedding with NYPD, and, some NYPD officers will have federal agent privileges, though exactly what those privileges would be is unclear.

Advocates say pandemic is behind rise in violence

Still, the news alarmed many police reform advocates.

"We should absolutely not be giving more power to the NYPD," says Melissa Moore, state director of the New York Drug Policy alliance. Her organization is part of Communities United For Police Reform. She says the NYPD has "shown time and again that their response cannot be trusted, and that they operate with impunity and a lack of transparency."

NYPD disbanded its plainclothes team, which targeted violent crime, about a year ago, amidst widespread protests over racial profiling. Some believe the disbanding is precisely why there are more shootings and had become a topic in the city's mayoral race.

Reform advocates like Moore say the pandemic is behind the rise in violence. People have been stuck at home for a year, flung into an economic crisis, and with a lot of time on their hands. She and others say the city should be pumping money into community services and violence prevention programs.

Thomas Abt, New York's former deputy secretary for public safety, says both points of view are correct. "I am concerned that as rates of violent crime increase," he says, "there will be pressure to engage in the indiscriminate tactics [that] in the past ... weren't particularly effective."

Abt says a partnership between the NYPD and ATF could be very useful. "But we have to understand that it's not just about the supply of guns, it's about the demand for guns."

Pastor Gil Monrose heads "The God Squad" in Brooklyn, a team of clergy who try to mediate neighborhood tensions.
Jasmine Garsd / Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Pastor Gil Monrose heads "The God Squad" in Brooklyn, a team of clergy who try to mediate neighborhood tensions.

Personal beefs simmer in summer and shootings rise

Gil Monrose worries about that demand part. He walks through the Kingsborough Public Houses, in Brooklyn, which last year saw several killings.

New York City, he says, cannot police its way out of this.

Monrose points to a group of young men hanging out in a courtyard. He wishes they had a community center, an activity to go to. "These young people. What do they do? Where do they go?" he asks.

Monrose heads "The God Squad," a group of clergy who mediate neighborhood tensions. He says he's bracing for that maddeningly hot New York weather, that makes personal beefs simmer, and, historically, shootings rise. "I'm worried about this summer, and I'm worried about every day."

Further down the road, we run into resident Tonya Mabry, listening to music on a massive portable stereo, with her niece. Mabry is a third-grade school teacher. She's aware of the rise in shootings, and what she sees as the causes.

"Gangs. Gangs. Territory," she says. "Because when it gets hot people, for some reason, they get crazy."

Schoolteacher Tonya Mabry (left) and Pastor Gil Monrose (right) agree that in order to curb rising violence, more money needs to be put into community activities and violence prevention.
/ Jasmine Garsd/NPR
Schoolteacher Tonya Mabry (left) and Pastor Gil Monrose (right) agree that in order to curb rising violence, more money needs to be put into community activities and violence prevention.

She's also wary of a police force that she says has often handled this entire neighborhood like it's a threat. "This is not a neighborhood to come in to be afraid of. Have to know how to respect and approach people."

For communities like these, sandwiched between an uptick in violence, and a police force they feel has targeted them, the question of the summer remains: Where do we go from here?

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