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The Village Voice Investigates: LES Youth Violence

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4311286.47                               Pat Kinsella

In this week's edition of the Village Voice, reporter Graham Rayman has a lengthy piece focusing on youth violence on the Lower East Side. The story searches for answers to a troubling question: why is anxiety about crime increasing even as the crime rate reaches historic lows? 

Talking with kids, youth counselors and longtime neighborhood residents, the report underscores the reality that statistics often don't tell the whole story.

Here are some key excerpts:

There's this one street kid—we'll call him Johnny—who's 18 and lives
with his asthmatic grandmother and cousins in a cramped East 12th
Street apartment because his father kicked him out of their apartment
and his mom left the city. He says he's on probation for five years,
which stemmed from a robbery arrest. He says he knocked someone over
and took their cash so he could buy lunch. He says he's been jumped and
beaten with metal bats. He says he's afraid to walk past certain public
housing projects that he considers rival gang territory. He wants to
leave the neighborhood, but feels like he has no other option than to
stay. Johnny describes a world of young louts endlessly roaming the
streets, of the constant presence of drugs, of brazen instigators who
post YouTube videos to make threats and call out other groups and who
fill MySpace
pages with tough-guy images and over-the-top boasts. These wannabes and
badasses associate themselves with the public housing projects they
live in, giving themselves colorful names like Money Boyz in the Campos
Houses, and No Fair Ones (NFO) in the Smith Houses.

Compared to the high-crime years of the late '80s and early
'90s, the Lower East Side has far fewer serious reported crimes,
according to police statistics. Of the four precincts, only the 9th
Precinct showed an overall increase in crime last year, with increases
in assault, grand larceny, and rape, and a big jump in burglary. The
5th, 7th, and 13th precincts, meanwhile, all showed overall declines. On the other hand, comparing 2008 to 2009, there were some increases
here and there. Felony assaults in the 7th Precinct jumped by 40
percent last year. Grand larcenies increased, as did rapes. Assaults in
the 5th Precinct were up compared to 2007. And the 13th Precinct saw a
rise in burglaries. The number of neighborhood kids 15 or younger sent to the city
juvenile justice system rose from 38 in 2008 to 54 in 2009. Typically,
about half of those admissions were on robbery or assault charges. The Voice also obtained misdemeanor arrest numbers for the
four precincts, which show overall increases from 2006 to 2008—largely
fueled by jumps in burglary and larceny offenses, along with a
significant increase in low-level marijuana busts. For example, misdemeanor arrests in the 9th Precinct jumped by
almost 25 percent between 2006 and 2008, largely as a result of
burglary and theft cases. Misdemeanor arrests in the 5th Precinct rose
by about 20 percent, largely on theft offenses.

But the article points out there's a major disconnect between the statistics and the perception that violence is increasing:

"We certainly saw an upsurge in the past couple of years of the presence of gangs," says Matthew Guldin,
a lifelong educator who retired as dean of students for a Lower East
Side high school last June. "You knew it was there. I think some of it
has to do with the economic downturn. The crisis always comes first in
the poorest neighborhoods. With fewer jobs available for teens, parents
being laid off, and schools and community agencies losing funding,
there are fewer positive options available to engage teenagers during
the after-school hours. And I think YouTube, MySpace, texting, the
communications technology, exacerbates it."

The Voice also spoke with psychologist Jeffry Solomon, who "spends, it seems, every spare minute in the streets and the local community centers, checking up on kids."

"My main goal, unfortunately, is to keep them from killing each other,"
he says. "You see the effect every day. The police know about it, the
[prosecutors] know about it, the social services organizations know
about it, the politicians know about it."

The police may very well "know about it," but they clearly have no interest in discussing what's happening on the streets. This past month, during an interview with The Lo-Down, a precinct captain abruptly ended an interview when the subject of gang violence came up. The Village Voice, apparently, got a similar response:

We asked Paul Browne,
the NYPD's spokesman, about these perceptions, and also requested crime
stats that might show whether youth crime was indeed surging, but he
didn't respond to our e-mail.

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