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Life Without Police

A view from the corner.

Among young black men in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the New York Police Department's two-weeks-and-counting "slowdown" in street-level policing isn't just the news – it's personal. Whereas white New Yorkers in Manhattan may not have enough interaction with the police to discern first-hand that drug arrests, low-level criminal summonses, and citations are on the decline, young black men in Bed-Stuy, a historically black Brooklyn neighborhood of high-rise public housing, low-rent row houses, and expanding pockets of gentrification, are highly attuned to every subtle shift in NYPD behavior.

They are students of policing, say the young men out in the streets on a seriously cold Wednesday morning, whether they like it or not. After all, the types of policing the slowdown has slowed are the types that affect them most.

Devaughn Rozier, 28, lives in the Marcy Houses, where Jay-Z grew up. He's heavily bundled in a hat, scarves, and multiple parkas, all to walk one block to the corner bodega, for a sandwich and a drink.

Rozier says the cops have stopped coming around since they began their undeclared protest against Mayor Bill de Blasio, and that’s cause for celebration.

“You normally see they’d be posted up on Marcy and Floyd, Marcy and Stockton, Marcy and Myrtle; they’d be posting up on all these corners,” he says, sizing up a nearby group of high school boys, the same way he says the police eye him and his friends. “They’d be up on the roofs of the projects, in groups of three. They’d be saying the probable cause for searching me and running my ID was I lived in a building with drug trafficking going on in it, even though that building has, like, 5,000 people staying there.”

“Now,” he says, smiling, “that’s free land."

Charles Franklin, a 27-year-old student wearing a Shepard Fairey hat that reads “OBEY,” is also enjoying the latest trend in policing.

“This is how it’s supposed to be,” he says, referring to the “quiet” he’s been sensing, the “lower volume” of cops he’s been seeing on local corners. “I’m not talking about guys getting away with nothing, I’m talking about feeling safe. The police driving up on us, because of some hearsay, and jumping out, that don’t make us feel safe. The police smelling every drink I drink, looking in my bag every time I come out the store, that don’t make me feel safe.”

“This is how it’s supposed to be,” he reiterates. “We feel safe. And for once, we're not running late – usually we always be running late because of having been hassled.”

Across the street, at the entrance to the Marcy Houses grounds, a list of 17 rules is prominently posted. No barbecuing, no bicycle riding, no lingering, no creating a disturbance – rules, rules, rules, says Joseph, 24, wearing a jacket that looks cut for someone bigger. Rules, he said, that the police, until about two weeks ago, would cite when they wanted to mess with people.

"They'd say they saw you spat on the sidewalk, so they got to run your name. They pat you down, say some slick comments. That's the kind of thing happening less – less in the last two weeks, and less overall since de Blasio came in."

Only one long block away, at the corner of Myrtle and Tompkins, a deranged gunman on December 20 shot and killed officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who had been sitting in their patrol car. In the wake of that Bed-Stuy shooting, police union boss Patrick Lynch openly asserted (and many back-turning NYPD officers implied) that the mayor was somehow to blame, saying he'd "thrown them under the bus" by teaching his bi-racial son to be careful in encounters with police.

And so the officers went on strike – or began the "slowdown," or the "virtual work stoppage," depending on who’s describing the protest.

In Bed-Stuy, the arrests, summonses and citations numbers have dropped especially precipitously. Between December 29 and January 4, only eight parking tickets and two moving violations were written in Brooklyn 79, the precinct that includes the Marcy Houses, the Tompkins Houses, and much of the surrounding area.

Many young black men in the neighborhood have perceived trends within that trend; they’re accustomed to identifying, internalizing, and, when they have to, predicting shifts in police policy. Tyquan Cherry, 29, for example, says the cops have stopped giving tickets for alternate-side parking violations – except on one particular block outside the Tompkins Houses, where the NYPD makes the most money, he says.

"Dead officers or no dead officers," he reasons, "police got to make their money somehow. In that way, they the same as any of us."

Daquan Gardner, 24, says the numbers may be down citywide, but watch closely and it’s clear “the police have picked and chosen some of their favorite things to keep on doing... Come back here, to Myrtle, at mid-afternoon, when the kids are getting out. You’ll see the vans rolling up, and they’ll be picking out kids walking in groups.”

“I know there’s a slowdown,” he says, but “the only way to look at the police is corner by corner, activity by activity. There’s some particular stuff they’ve really kept on doing.”

Others say the recent curtailment of police activity is affecting different groups differently – just as policing always has.

Jemsy, 19, wearing a backpack that appears empty, agrees the cops may have quit doing “adult” law enforcement, like parking tickets. But they sure haven’t stopped hassling kids. “Just two days ago I was stopped and frisked,” says his friend, Benjy, 16, wearing a doorman's hat that says "780 3rd Ave.," though he's too young to be a doorman.

"This is how we look," he says. The two are wearing the same shiny, puffy black parka; they’re sharing headphones, too. "They haven't stopped stopping people that look like us."

For another cohort of local residents, the slowdown is not so welcome. “It just don’t feel right,” says Alphonzo Holland, who says he’s stood on the same corner – Tompkins and Hart – every morning for years, and that the last few mornings it’s been eerily quiet. “They used to jump out; now I don’t even much as see them riding around.”

“It isn’t right,” he says, looking around at his intersection. “It make me think bad can happen.”

Most neighborhood shop owners, similarly, say they want the police to be as visible as they were during and immediately after the funerals for Liu and Ramos, when the news media were watching. "It would be safer for everyone if they were seen," says one, who says he goes by Hibba.

"I know officers were shot," he says. "But how about the people getting shot every day? The police can't just stop keeping us safe because they don't feel safe. That's not how it works."

Across the East River in midtown Manhattan, where the police tread much more lightly in normal times, the slowdown goes largely unnoticed. “I know it is happening, but I can't really say what that means," says Jeremy Spence, walking west on 57th Street, a 45-minute subway ride from Marcy and Myrtle. He’s sipping from a bright pink Vitamin Water.

It's cold, he says. He walks through a revolving door into the lobby of one of New York City's new skyscrapers, where the doorman acknowledges him with a nod.

"What do I have to gauge it against?" he asks, sipping his drink. "It's not like before two weeks ago I was constantly getting stopped for that stuff. In fact, I wasn't stopped for it even once."