One block at a time

Neighborhood program successful for 5-0

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It was a rainy Wednesday evening last week, but not inside the Kingsbridge Library. There, a small group of neighbors exchanged greetings with each other, as well as the five men in uniform who, by their very appearance, were the center of attention.

It’s called “Build the Block,” a quarterly meeting hosted by the 50th Precinct, providing an opportunity to hear concerns from people in their own neighborhood, and to share what the New York Police Department is doing to address those problems.

The 50th is divided into three sectors, each with their own dedicated neighborhood coordination officer. This particular meeting was for Sector B, a long strip that includes Marble Hill, Kingsbridge and Van Cortlandt Village.

Representing the sector are Brandon Day and Klaudio Rroku — two officers many in attendance greeted by name. Joining them was NCO supervisor, Sgt. Mark Giordano, as well as housing officers Jordan Gallagher and Joseph Reeves.

These meetings have been a regular occurrence in the 5-0 since the NCO program was established in 2018. NCOs and “Build the Block” meetings are components of the NYPD’s neighborhood policing model, one that centers on building personal relationships between officers, and those in the neighborhood they serve.

Instead of seeing police only when something’s gone wrong in the neighborhood, these community meetings allow people to interact with officers more proactively. There’s a dialogue about how to prevent crime instead of reacting to it after it happens.

On this particular night, however, the officers bore some mixed news. While crime is up citywide, things are relatively quiet in the northwest Bronx, Rroku said. Stealing entire cars or just parts of them continues to be the 50th Precinct’s biggest plague. Violent crime, however, has been rare, especially in the last three months.

But an increase in fraud has police worried, Rroku warned. Impersonations, identity theft, phone scams — crooks use whatever ruse gets their typically elderly targets to hand over their money.

“Social Security does not call you on the phone,” Rroku said. “They don’t call you. The IRS doesn’t call you on the phone either to tell you that you owe them $1,000 or even $50. They’ll send you a letter.”

Lately, there’s a spate of mailbox fishing in the precinct, he added. Perps use adhesive attached to a string, lower it into a sidewalk mailbox, and pull out envelope after envelope until they land a personal check. Fraudsters wash off the handwritten ink, leaving the check’s print intact, and write whatever payee and amount they want.

“Hopefully by the end of the year, the vast majority of the 50th Precinct is going to have tamper-proof mailboxes,” Giordano said.

Neighbors had concerns of their own. They asked about tenant patrols at the Marble Hill Houses, improving public transportation access, and installing better street lighting.

They entreated officers to find ways to mitigate the traffic snarl caused by the flood of 1,000 or so students released simultaneously from the John F. Kennedy school campus. Loud cars and drivers who like to make tire-burned doughnuts on the street have continued to be a woe among neighbors.

A lot of the conversation revolved around young people — how to not only enforce the law, but also give kids something constructive to do.

Carolyn Smith asked how she could help. A former U.S. Marine and a local activist since the ‘70s, Smith hoped to develop a boxing program she believes would keep kids involved in something, and out of trouble. Rroku said it was a great idea, adding that the precinct plans to roll out a youth coordination program in schools.

“Some of these kids just need direction,” housing officer Reeves said. “Not all of them, but most of them.”

A compliment to that program would be to break down young people’s fear of the police, Smith said. Part of the solution is bringing more kids and teens to meetings like this one, Rroku said. Officers try talking to kids during their patrols, but it’s not the best setting. Community meetings are.

“We can’t reach the youth if we can’t get the parents, the teachers, the libraries, the community centers — all of them coming together for the same goal,” Reeves said. “It takes a village to raise a child, but the problem is the village is —”

“Broke down,” Paulette Shomo said.

“Yes. That’s what we have to rebuild,” Reeves said.

Shomo, the precinct’s community council president, urged her neighbors to enroll in the civilian police academy. She and Dorothy Shephard graduated from the program years ago, she said. They went through some of the physical training officers go through, but also had to learn the piles of laws and regulations officers need to know before going out in the field.

“But the interesting part of it is, you get to understand what the officers go through,” Shomo said. “They are human beings, and they are just like we are.”

And that’s what makes the NCO program work, Giordano said. Instead of making the community come to the precinct, going to the community fosters a personal relationship. That way, more people can be the eyes and ears of the police department.

“What this program provides us is where to focus our energy,” he said. “Now we’re not just driving around the neighborhood all day, trying to take it all in. The community tells us what’s going on and where best to spend our time.”