Volume 20, Number 29 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Nov. 30 - Dec. 6, 2007

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Community, cops debate whether police can solve teen violence problem

By Julie Shapiro

There are limits to what the police can do to reduce teen violence Downtown, a First Precinct sergeant told Community Board 1 Tuesday.

“If they have a problem in school, they’re settling it in the street,” Sgt. George Codd told C.B. 1’s Youth and Education Committee. He spoke in response to concerns about an increase in fights outside the Fulton St. Burger King at Gold St., mainly between students from nearby Murry Bergtraum High School.

When police officers get to the scene of a fight, the injured teenagers usually decide not to press charges, Codd said. As a result, the Burger King scuffles have netted only one or two disorderly conduct arrests, he said.

“Nobody wants to rat on each other,” Codd said. “They want to settle it their own way, which leads to another fight.”

Joe Morrone, a committee member and Southbridge Towers resident, painted a picture of increasing crime in the neighborhood. He said he has seen a rise in violence and small robberies, and said that the senior citizens at Southbridge worry about sitting outside because the teenagers come onto Southbridge property and harass them.

Morrone said he once saw a student throw a bottle in the air, and when he asked an officer to discipline the student, the officer replied, “Well, you know kids.”

“We understand that the First Precinct is stretched,” Morrone said Tuesday. “[But] today there was no police presence.”

Codd responded that police officers were assigned to Burger King that afternoon, but had to respond to Century 21 to make an arrest.

Committee Chairperson Paul Hovitz wants to see a regularly scheduled police presence. He suggested a rotating schedule that would keep kids guessing about when police will be there.

“I can’t guarantee a regular police presence,” Codd replied. He cited the August Deutsche Bank fire as an example of an event that drained manpower from regular patrols. “We try to get somebody out there every day,” he said.

Murry Bergtraum must share some of the responsibility for working on this problem, said Jeff Galloway, a committee member.

“Many schools don’t tolerate this sort of behavior,” he said. Galloway added that Principal Barbara Esmilla should be concerned about her students’ actions, whether or not they are on school grounds.

Hovitz invited Esmilla to the meeting, along with several other school officials, but C.B. 1 did not hear back from them.

“If we find out about [violent behavior outside of school], of course we’re going to address it,” Esmilla said in a telephone interview. Esmilla runs several programs to target gang violence, including a peer-to-peer intervention program with the Anti-Defamation League that is new this year. Gang activity is on the rise all over New York City, and Esmilla emphasized that nothing will change overnight.

“The root of the problem is if kids’ parents are not involved in their education, there’s not much a principal or any educator can do,” Esmilla said. She said she has disciplined students for actions off school grounds when she hears about it, but she can’t take preventive action on city streets. Once students leave school property, the job of responding to violence falls to the police, she said.

“What would the community like a principal to do?” Esmilla asked. “Escort them home?”

Esmilla did not explain why she did not attend the committee meeting, but said she is upset that the community only gets involved in the school when they have negative feedback on a small percentage of her students.

At the meeting, Paul Goldstein, from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office, said Esmilla previously attended a community board meeting that was “emotional and confrontational,” which might have contributed to her reluctance to come back.

“She’s got her hands filled,” Goldstein said of Esmilla. “The short-term solution is [police] enforcement.”

Mariama James, a committee member, said Esmilla “thought we were going after her.”

“The perspective has been that we are anti-children,” James said. “We are anti-crime and anti-danger.”

“We want to work with her,” Hovitz affirmed, and said he would reach out again.

Bob Townley, committee member and executive director of Manhattan Youth, made a suggestion that was right up his alley.

“The solution is in after-school resources,” Townley said.

Hovitz countered that Townley was talking about a long-term solution.

“I’m talking about the only way to solve the problem,” Townley replied.

Murry Bergtraum already has after-school programs, Esmilla said.

“Those students [who go to Burger King] don’t go to after-school programs,” she said. “These are young people who don’t want to go home.”

Ann DeFalco, a committee member, said problems are not limited to after-school hours. She has seen groups of six to eight students congregating in restaurants on William St. during the late morning, presumably cutting class. Codd urged her and others to call truancy officers.

After nearly an hour of discussion about the increasing violence among teenagers, one resident stated her alarm about the danger of the neighborhood, particularly for her young daughter.

Committee members were quick to reassure her that the situation was not out of hand.

“It’s not that bad,” DeFalco said. “It happens everywhere.”

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