A Fatal Chokehold Reveals a Precinct's Troubles

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The Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

The death of Eric Garner last month is placing a spotlight on Staten Island's North Shore — home to the largest black population in the borough.

Unlike the rest of the city, Staten Island is predominantly white. Black Staten Islanders and other minorities are largely concentrated in the area around the St. George Ferry Terminal and along the North Shore. The area, in which Eric Garner also died, is covered by the 120th precinct.

In recent years, the precinct has issued more than twice as many low-level summonses and made more than twice as many stops and frisks on a per capita basis than elsewhere on the island, according to a WNYC analysis of data provided by the New York Civil Liberties Union. The island used to have three police precincts but in 2013 added a fourth.

“If you look at the numbers, you have to ask yourself, 'Why are more people being arrested and stopped by the police, as a proportion on the North Shore, under the 120 precinct?'” said Christopher Pisciotta, attorney-in-charge at Legal Aid’s office on Staten Island. “Why isn’t this great level of policing that occurs across the island, across the communities, across income levels?”

He said the broken windows approach — focusing on low-level offenses to prevent bigger ones — has created resentment, a sentiment echoed by residents in the area.

“If I don't have ID, they will put me in a car and take me down,” said Dwayne Thompson, 31, who lives in the Richmond Terrace Houses, a public housing development. “Over here, I guess, everyone is a criminal.”

But the stats show that on the North Shore, it’s not just the number of summonses and stop-and-frisks that are high. The precinct also has double the rate of major crimes, compared to other precincts on the island.

“It is a person’s behavior that leads to interactions with the police, not who they are, not what they look like, not how much money is in their pocket,” said Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, during a press conference this week.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has said broken-windows policing is not going anywhere, because it helps keep the city safe. During a visit to one of the island’s largely white neighborhoods, Midland Beach, for the city’s Night Out Against Crime this week, he said safe streets help relationships with the entire community.

“We’re very fortunate that we have great relationships with the community over here on Staten Island and in the city,” Bratton said. “And we’re building on the strengths of those relationships. My precinct captains, my cops do a great job. And the relationships, I’ve found, are very, very good.”

Whether those relationships are indeed good is becoming increasingly important for Staten Island. The number of black residents is going up — it increased 18 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — while citywide, it is decreasing. Bishop Victor Brown, who has served a mostly black congregation in the New Brighton area for 30 years, says the police reach out regularly to meet with community leaders. He says many residents want community policing: cops walking the beat, meeting residents face to face.

“How we interface with people, I think, spells the difference between something potentially going good and something potentially not going good,” he said.