Stairwells represent potential flashpoints in NYCHA buildings
In the wake of the shooting of two police officers in a stairwell, residents of the Melrose Houses expressed concern about what they see as a collision course between a spike in crime and NYPD’s vertical patrols assigned to their community.
Tyrone Griset, a former resident of the Melrose Houses who lives in a shelter in Manhattan, said he sees benefits from having more police patrolling the buildings.
“Now, I feel good because they are helping,” Griset said. “Because that’s when the young kids come out, and they are doing the buddy patrols and they will catch somebody doing something illegal. So I do like it.”
At an imposing 6 feet tall and in his sixties, Griset and his friends pass the time talking to neighbors at the entrance of the 320 W. 156th street building in the development. He considers himself and a few select residents as part of an informal neighborhood watch, keeping an eye on the activity in and around his building.
He has long been a presence in the area, and notices the recent changes the police have made with the stairwell patrols.
Vertical patrols are a police practice of regularly canvasing stairwells in public housing units to prevent crimes like drug sales and harassment. The routine patrols in the Melrose Houses gained wider notice after a shooting on February 4th left two officers wounded and the gunman dead after shooting himself.
It was a violent outburst in a location essential for residents to come and go from the building and where there has been a recent rise in crime. Melrose Houses residents have experienced five felony assaults in the first two months of the year, two more than in the same period of 2015. The total felony count has increased by 66 percent over the same period, according to the NYPD.
Marquis Martinez, another former resident of the Melrose Houses, comes back frequently to see his 4-year-old daughter. He said the risk is almost too high for his family.
“I’m kinda scared to be around here. I’m kinda scared for my daughter,” Martinez said. “I feel like it’s dangerous over here. Being that something just happened, I am pretty sure that it is still going around. Everybody knows about it, and I feel like a lot of people they don’t want to make things better, they make things worse.”
Residents, like Martinez, worry that the increase in crime in the Melrose Houses will lead to more conflict with the police on patrol, and that innocent bystanders might soon be caught in the fray.
“If anything goes wrong to a point where I’m walking past I can be involved. I can get shot, and I can get hit by anything, any object moving,” Martinez said. “I feel like it’s wrong because at the end of the day I’m minding my business. I don’t have nothing to do with anything going on. A lot of people don’t have nothing to do with anything going on.”
Residents and frequent visitors said they worry about their safety, as the atmosphere grew heavy in the wake of the shooting of the officers and compounded by a spate of crime, They fear that young men with nothing to do will continue causing problems as they did in early February.
Even at mid-day, the faint lighting trickling through the cloudy window in the stairwell sets that scene clearly. The plastic-encased florescent bulbs cast a dim glow on stained walls and stairs. A family of three, each with a worried look, climbs the stairs careful not to touch the dirt clinging to repainted concrete walls. At the Melrose houses, the stairs are the best option since the elevators are unreliable and often not working.
Patrick Espeut and Diara Cruz, the officers wounded in the shooting on February 4 encountered two young men spending time on the sixth floor landing of the same stairwell. It is a common scene according to Griset. The shooter, Malik Chavis, pulled out a handgun and shot Espeut in the face and Cruz in the abdomen, according to police. Afterward, police say Chavis ran to an apartment on the 7th floor.
Responding officers say they found Chavis dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Cruz and Espeut were taken to Lincoln Hospital and the third police officer was unharmed. Cruz and Espeut have both been released from the hospital, according to NYPD twitter accounts.
Griset says that he and his friends are happy to spend time outside the building together where they regularly talk with neighbors as they help them through the door. He says they do what they can to put people at ease as they go about their days.
“And they like us because they think sometimes we are the deterrent to particular crimes,” Griset said. “But we all leave before the sun goes down.”