Drinkers run amok on Lower East Side’s ‘Hell Square’

The open-container law is regularly flouted in Hell Square, as seen in this recent photo, contributing to the area’s quality-of-life nightmare, the writer says.

The open-container law is regularly flouted in Hell Square, as seen in this recent photo, contributing to the area’s quality-of-life nightmare, the writer says.

BY DIEM BOYD  |  Bill Bratton’s return as commissioner of the New York Police Department brings with it his trademark “broken windows” policing policy. Bratton’s strategy advocated for a hard-line approach on low-level crime and quality-of-life violations predicated on the belief that a “disorderly city is a dangerous city.”

The crack in Bratton’s “broken window” strategy of the ’90s is that this policy overwhelmingly targeted the poor and minorities — where a police record for petty crimes had such devastating long-term effects as risking housing and work eligibility among these groups. Now, in the Lower East Side’s Hell Square, new-old Commissioner Bratton has a chance to fairly implement the “broken windows” style of policing that avoids the failures of past policy that may have disproportionately targeted minorities and the poor.

Currently, loitering and open containers in Hell Square is more lawful than in the Bronx or Bed-Stuy. A mere nine-block area, Hell Square is bounded by E. Houston, Essex, Delancey and Allen Sts. In this small section of New York, the city has created a destination playground for outsiders from Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and college students to party and commit offenses that would get other New Yorkers ticketed in their own neighborhoods. The disparity in the implementation of the “broken window” policy — against the poor and minorities — should compel Bratton to address how lawless this section of the Lower East Side has become.

If “broken windows” are symbolic of unaccountability, then this is a community of “broken bars” with little-to-zero accountability. In the last five years, the escalation of low-level crimes in Hell Square — such as public urination, open containers (people drinking alcohol on the sidewalk and in public spaces), public intoxication, littering, verbal harassment, loitering, disorderly conduct, etc. — has increased discomfort and fear among neighborhood residents.

The accumulation of these incidents forces residents to retreat as a sense of neglect pervades the area. A reduction of community efficacy has resulted in more serious crime, such as grand larceny (often theft of personal electronics), felony assault (up 32 percent in the first quarter of 2014), drugs, vandalism, trespassing and violence, plus greater signs of incivility, perpetuating a spiral of neighborhood decay.

The rampant anti-social behavior resulting from high alcohol-outlet density in Hell Square demands a police policy shift from passive crowd control and traffic mitigation to active, real-time policing of crimes consistent with citywide policing of other neighborhoods.

To start fixing this community that is suffering “broken bar” neglect, we need to strictly enforce regulations against public urination and vomiting, open containers, public intoxication, littering, loitering, verbal harassment and disorderly conduct. Ticketing will send a message that the Lower East Side is no longer a place where negligent behavior is above the law.

Through hyper-focused concentration on enforcement centered around a zero-tolerance policy for minor offenses and disorderly behavior infractions, the negative impacts of alcohol saturation in this community can be significantly reduced. Moreover, police officers simultaneously must develop an understanding of which venues are the source of these issues, not just limit focus to the end result on the street. Once the root causes can be identified, responsible liquor license holders will be among the beneficiaries of a commercially and socially viable community.

Situating “broken windows” policing within the broader context behind community policing is the vision we see to help advance the changes necessary. The prevailing perception among residents is that we have been unable to exert any social control over our community, and seemingly have been left out of the process. And despite the strong police presence, enforcement is not addressing the immediate concerns and problems this community faces from high alcohol-outlet density at the hands of negligent operators and offenders.

Moreover, enforcement may not be familiar with the rules, regulations, stipulations or procedures needed to effectively address community concerns and safety, especially regarding particularly bad operators.

One solution is Bratton’s “conscious uncoupling” with the ’90s version of “broken windows” toward a modern implementation of the policy: one that emphasizes police integration into communities, developing trust and a working partnership between enforcement and residents to solve problems and crime. This approach will decrease the assumption by police that anyone in a particular area is a potential criminal. But at its base level, “broken windows” policing has to take a blanket approach toward all low-level crimes in all parts of the city, treating all offenders equally.

A strong relationship between residents and police officers is paramount to reversing the current course. We advocate for having officers that patrol the neighborhood get to know residents in order to help solve problems. Under the leadership of new commanding officer Joseph Simonetti at the Seventh Precinct, there is an opportunity for police and community collaboration to directly address immediate problems and persistent crimes, promoting a lawful environment for all members of this community.

Reliance on the city’s 3-1-1 quality-of-life complaints hotline cannot substitute for the community policing needed in Hell Square. The 3-1-1 system separates the community from government agencies, delaying resolutions to nonemergency, yet urgent, problems. In this data-driven system, there is no accurate way to truly measure the needs of a community or hold government agencies and / or businesses accountable for resolving issues and conflicts. By redirecting the police focus toward community safety and quality-of-life infractions, any disconnect between data and actual conditions on the ground will be self-correcting.

Past strategies have failed, and trust in our governance has eroded. As liquor licenses ballooned, overtaking an entire community, low-level crime has become epidemic. Licensing without emphasis on strong and consistent enforcement is a recipe for the social disorder found in Hell Square. Reversing this community’s blight will only succeed if residents and the local police precinct establish a trusting, working relationship.

We need the collective will and participation of these three parties — residents, all business owners and the police — with substantive support from the New York State Liquor Authority and our elected officials. By marrying “community policing” with “broken windows” policing, all of us working together — residents, responsible liquor license holders and non-alcohol businesses — can restore social order and create an opportunity for a sustainable future that allows for economic diversity and a livable community.


Diem Boyd is the founder of Lower East Side Dwellers.

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