Photos by Angela Almeida
Deep into the night, a buzz can be heard in the Brownsville Houses. Outside playgrounds, inside parking lots, and throughout courtyards, massive floodlights marked with NYPD insignias and powered by humming generators stand guard, creating the eerie look of a perpetual crime scene. It’s no shocker, really: The Brooklyn project off Rockaway Avenue is located in one of New York City’s most crime-ridden areas and is known for its high police presence amid a bevy of affordable housing developments.
For resident Adilka Pimentel, what she witnesses on a daily basis is Omnipresence in action. That’s the comically Orwellian (and completely fucking terrifying) name for the freshest tactic in the NYPD playbook. To her, the bright beams mean one thing: The cops are here until dawn.
In a city where stop-and-frisk is no longer politically acceptable, but not necessarily over, this bizarro version of community policing deploys a platoon of patrolmen at corners and in the centers of buildings in more dangerous neighborhoods. It also bathes those neighborhoods in floodlights. Eyes, ears, and lights are now on every corner, in the hopes of stopping crime before it starts.
“It’s overwhelming. The lights shine into people’s rooms, making it hard for them to sleep,” Pimentel, a volunteer with the immigrant justice group Make the Road NY, told me. “It doesn’t exactly feel comfortable.”
Roberto Hines, a Flatbush resident who comes to Brownsville every night, says he first saw the lights go on three or four months ago, after a nearby shooting drew the cops’ attention. “They never turn off,” he told me, as we stood in the light’s reach. “The buzz from the generators never stops. There are at least five in every development.”
Hines says all of this is actually reassuring. “Now you can know when people are coming from far away,” he said. “And you can see the cops on the corner until midnight, with their blue lights on, not taking any calls. I never feel unsafe here.”
“Omnipresence is the perfect word for it,” Terence Francis, another resident of the Houses, said outside an illuminated basketball court. “You hear young kids now say all the time, ‘Damn, the cops are everywhere.’”
As a result, he agrees that the area is safer, even if it feels strange at night sometimes with all that brightness. “I just put my curtains up,” he said.
Even though some people are evidently fine with this new initiative, the NYPD doesn’t want to talk about it. If you search for Omnipresence online, you’ll mostly find Old Testament descriptions of God and His ability to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. So far, the only mention in a major media outlet of this new approach to law enforcement came in an article by Joseph Goldstein of the New York Times, who reported on the after-effects of stop-and-frisk in areas like Brownsville.
“As part of a new strategy called Omnipresence, the officers now stand on street corners like sentries, only rarely confronting young men and patting them down for weapons,” Goldstein writes. The article is supplemented by a video that asks, “Omnipresence: New Stop-and-Frisk?” but doesn’t provide an answer.
Brett Stoudt, an assistant professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that this digital footprint, or lack thereof, is confounding. “If you'd look at the to-do list in my office, you would see number six says, ‘Find out more about Omnipresence,’” he told me via email.
In his work, Stoudt analyzes the psychological impact aggressive policing has on low-income communities of color in the Bronx and Brooklyn. And, with a decade of stop-and-frisk procedures in place, he's had no shortage of material. However, the subjects Stoudt has spoken with in these neighborhoods are still not sure what Omnipresence is, or whether it’s part of something much bigger.
“It is too new. Certainly there is a sense that something might be different (lots of cops standing around) on the one hand, and then there is the sense that nothing has changed (still lots of stop-and-frisks and low-level misdemeanor arrests, albeit fewer than previously).” Stoudt added. “However, I am still unclear about the impact of Omnipresence, or even what is included and if it is going to stick as a thing.”
Until recently, Pimentel didn’t know what she sees just outside her home every day even had a name. She just figured it was standard procedure; in Brownsville, this type of behavior by the cops is pretty much expected. “We’ve acknowledged it, and we recognize that stop-and-frisk isn’t over,” she told me. “Omnipresence is just another one of those tactics.”
She believes Omnipresence is an outgrowth of broken windows policing, or the idea that if you focus on lower-level infractions, serious crime will diminish, which is essentially the basis of NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton’s career. He was supposed to offer a reset after his predecessor, Ray Kelly, was plagued by controversies over the surveillance of Muslim communities, brutality, and, of course, stop-and-frisk. But Omnipresence just adds surveillance while cutting back on actual interactions, so as to avoid bad PR. In other words, it’s stop-and-frisk 2.0.
After I reached out several times to the NYPD for comment, a spokesperson told me the department was still trying to craft a response to my basic question: What is Omnipresence? We'll update this story if they get back to us, but the hesitation further shrouds the tactic in mystery, as if even the police are unsure about what, exactly, this all means.
John Surico is a Queens-based freelance journalist. His reporting can be found in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter.