The criminal charges lean heavily on social media activity by young men of color.
Officers gather at a location in the Bronx during a takedown of two rival drug gangs in the early hours of Wednesday, April 27, 2016. (New York Police Department via AP)
In the early hours of a cold spring morning last month, residents at Eastchester Gardens, a public housing project in the Bronx, were awakened to a sight out of an action movie. NYPD officers and federal agents, some adorned with helmets and bulletproof vests, entered the buildings with battering rams—and a list of names.
For a few hours at least, swathes of northern New York City seemed to be on a sort of war footing.
Billed as the largest "gang crackdown" in NYC history, the raid swept up over 120 people, mostly young men of color, who authorities suggested were behind a surge of violence in the north Bronx. At a press conference immediately after the raids, which involved nearly 700 police officers and federal agents, US Attorney Preet Bharara said the suspects terrorized the area with "open-air drug dealing and senseless violence" and used Facebook and YouTube to "to promote, protect, and grow their ranks."
Almost immediately, community members and a few local politicians began expressing skepticism at the massive scope of the raid. Stop and frisk may be on the outs in New York, but some fear the notorious tactic is simply being replaced by the occasional show of spectacular force.
For Bronx City Councilman Ritchie Torres, though, what stuck out most about last month's raid was the centrality of social media use in the criminal charges.
"These raids make for great public relations, but the impact of these raids depends on who you're actually taking off the streets," he said in an interview. "Are these extremely violent members or minor actors? It's not clear when you're treating the gang as one monolith. Not every member of the gang is equally violent."
Sprawling gang raids represent the tactic of choice for the NYPD these days, as officials pursue ever-lower crime rates. Known as "Operation Crew Cut," the focus on gangs began around the same time city cops found out in 2013 that they can no longer use "stop and frisk" to disproportionately question and arrest people of color. Once Commissioner Bill Bratton took office a year later, he expanded the operation, and under his watch, the NYPD and local prosecutors have been very high on using inflammatory social media posts as evidence for conspiracy murder charges. But CUNY Law School Professor Babe Howell, who has studied the raids intensively, says that in almost every case, the charges are simply used as leverage against a defendant in an attempt to get them to take plea deals—or act as a witness against another alleged gang member.
"You can charge a member of a group with conspiring to commit a crime when they weren't present for the crime, or didn't take part in the crime, in any way," Howell said. "The recent indictments from the Bronx, you have about fifty people charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and they each have the potential of receiving twenty-five to life if they fight the charges."
In 2014, Operation Crew Cut made its first major appearance in the city when 103 young men were indicted, many of them rounded up at housing projects in Harlem. Cops used the same military-style raid they did last month in the Bronx. As in the more recent indictment, social media played a key role in pressing charges. And a Village Voice investigation has since revealed that of the 103 charged, 94 took a plea deal rather than stand trial. So even though cases were sometimes being built on "likes," "shares," and social media posts, thanks to the pressure put on defendants to take plea deals, prosecutors rarely have to present more substantial evidence in a courtroom.
But some experts maintain this kind of enforcement is the least harmful way to target violent people in American cities. David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has been studying anti-gang initiatives for decades. He much prefers the occasional action flick-style gang raid to consistent use of tactics like stop and frisk and the philosophy of broken windows policing, which focuses on quality of life offenses.
"In a lot of places, including New York City, the focus has shifted away from high levels of stop and frisk directed at young men in entire communities to identifying and focusing on this very high-risk population," Kennedy said. "Even within this high-risk population, both offending and victimization is not evenly distributed. It's really concentrated. You find very small parts of even this group that exhibit violent offending at exceptionally high rates. That opens the door to the kind of investigative focus that we're talking about."
The week after the raid last month, the Bronx district attorney, along with other law enforcement officials and local politicians, met with community members to explain why a not insignificant number of the young men in their area had disappeared. In the immediate aftermath of the raids, several residents expressed relief that the NYPD was trying to target drug dealers, but in heated exchanges at the community meeting, others questioned how an arrest could be made on the basis of a social media post, or the wearing of a certain color of fitted hat, and nothing more.
"Nobody is going to get convicted or indicted based on a fitted hat. This is way too serious for that," shouted Bronx DA Darcel Clark. "There's an indictment that has been filed that explains the charges and the conduct. A judge will review that and that's the process that we have."
The problem is that for many defendants, their case never gets to a point where a judge can review the charges before they cop a plea. And the city's public defender system is stretched to the limit when it comes to conspiracy cases like this one.
"All the institutional defenders, who have great expertise and are familiar with criminal defense work, get conflicted off the cases, because you can't represent fifty people in one indictment—you can only do one," said Professor Howell. "You need fifty separate lawyers to be appointed, who even if they have great experience, don't have the same knowledge that institutional defenders bring to the case."
(In a statement, an NYPD spokesperson said these busts "are not 'gang raids' but enforcement actions against criminal groups based on long-term investigations of various crimes, including homicides, shootings, narcotics offenses, financial fraud, and criminal conspiracies.")
Thirty-one-year-old Joshua Whitlock was one of the people who spoke out at the meeting about the raids. Raised in Eastchester but now a Brooklyn resident, the erstwhile Bronx denizen wonders if the NYPD and federal officials could get away with simultaneously arresting 100 people if they weren't in his old hood.
"If this was any other context, people would see how steep it's going to be for these people to get a fair trial," he told me. "It's only in the minority community that people don't see this as a big deal. They don't feel like this could ever happen to themselves."
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