By Victoria Merlino
A Queens Town Hall on Gun Violence turned into a referendum on neighborhood policing Thursday, as lawmakers, advocates, city agencies and police officials gathered to collaborate on ways to end gun violence in the borough.
The town hall took place against a backdrop of increased gun violence in Queens, with more than 40 people already shot in the borough this year. NYPD Queens South Assistant Chief David Barrere and Queens North Assistant Chief Martin Morales described various police programs designed to reach young people in communities like Far Rockaway, where some community members present were from.
Some attendees, however, said that distrust between the police and communities of color make those police youth programs unrealistic options for many young people.
“There’s no trust there,” an advocate from violence prevention group Rock Safe Streets told Barrere. “So if you give that money that you have for that program, give it to us, so that we can do what works, because I feel like we know what works.”
Barrere said he recognized the advocate’s perspective and has encouraged the NYPD to direct more funding to programs like Erica Ford’s LIFE Camp, which seeks to resolve conflicts and prevent gun violence.
“I do hear what you are saying,” Barrere said. “We have a crisis of trust in policing right now.”
Another community member in the audience said Barrere and the NYPD had to build the trust through departmental policy and officers’ behavior.
“We’ve been getting heard for over 400 years, so evidently somebody’s not listening,” the attendee said. “You’re saying you’re listening, but evidently, you’re not getting the message.”
“Same police in the same community, harassing the same people in that community,” the person continued.
Ford, who was present, said LIFE Camp often has to teach police how to build a relationship between their two organizations.
“As commanding officers, I want you to listen closely to what that brother’s saying, because that’s how he feels, and that’s how a lot of people in the community feel.”
Ford spoke of how often she used to fight with the NYPD, but grew tired of getting arrested and decided to change her response to the police. She now works with them so that their attitudes toward the African-American community would change for the better.
“We’ve got to demand our respect. Because we are human beings, and we do great work. And we just have a right to live. Through things like this [town hall], we begin to change the paradigm of how we relate to one another,” she said.
Borough President Melinda Katz, a candidate for Queens district attorney, hosted the event, which featured a panel of advocates, including Ford, Lance Feurtado of the King of Kings Foundation, Kenny Carter of Fathers Alive in the Hood, Shyism “Hino” Bryant of 696 Build Queensbridge and Amy Wilkerson of Rock Safe Streets.
“We are trying tonight to work toward better relationships with everybody in the room,” Katz said. Throughout the night, she called for more cooperation between city agencies, police and community in order to build trust and start collaborating over the gun violence issue.
Attendees also discussed the opioid crisis, why certain guns remain on the streets and how guns enter Queens communities.
“This nation has a demonic obsession with guns,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who argued that stemming gun violence takes limiting the demand for firearms and having frank conversations with gun owners.
“I know there is a trust issue with the police. But, there shouldn’t be a trust issue with the LIFE Camp and 696 and those folks,” he said. “The infrastructure is in place now, where you don’t have to interface with folks that you don’t feel comfortable with, you can interface with people whose job is not to lock anybody up. But whose sole purpose is to prevent the spread of the violence disease that is going on.”
Acting Queens District Attorney Jack Ryan, Assemblymember David Weprin, Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer and other government officials also attended the event.
Katz ended the night by affirming how important it is for anti-violence advocates to come from within the community.
“That is truly the key to success of so many of these organizations that are up here,” Katz said.
“Make sure that we are raising our kids up with mentors and examples of who they want to be.”