With a rising crime wave sweeping Ditmas Park, many residents have become guarded, and police are out in force. Some residents have speculated that striking economic inequality plus a wave of new, wealthier arrivals to the area have triggered crime. But lifelong resident Jonathan J. Judge, chair and former president of the Brooklyn Young Republican Club and member of Community Board 14 (where he serves as co-chair of the Youth Services Committee), disagrees, believing the problem stems from the recent curtailment of stop-and-frisk and an increasingly anti-police sentiment. Brooklyn Brief sat down with Judge to ask him his thoughts on the neighborhood’s latest challenges.
Brooklyn Brief: Tell us about the recent incidents of violent crime in the community.
Jonathan Judge: There’s been a string of armed robberies, at least one of them deadly. A man was shot and killed in a robbery at a house on Rugby Road. Another man was shot around the corner from where I live. Around the same time there was a robbery in a residential building elevator. Then Mimi’s Hummus was robbed on October 24th. Stratford Deli was robbed on November 4th and the Ox Cart Tavern on November 5. Most recently, a robber stole laptops and cash from clientele at gunpoint at the Lark Cafe. It’s all very troubling.
BB: What’s your perspective on all this?
JJ: Well, I’m born and raised in the community, so I’m definitely not one of the people experiencing something like this for the first time. This has happened before, but it went away for a very long time. Of course, there are sections of the precinct that still struggle, and people have still been trying to get ahead of the curve on that. But this area where these incidents occurred pretty much cleaned up and has had very few incidents in the last ten years, certainly not involving guns like this.
BB: Are there any policing or policy considerations you believe are important to consider?
JJ: Yes. I have to question how much of an impact the political quandary of curtailing “stop, question, and frisk” has had on all of this. The numbers have dropped dramatically: there’s almost no stop, question, and frisk anymore. Then there’s the politics of the police union, where they don’t want to see officers “hung out to dry” for making a mistake. There’s a very anti-police climate right now, certainly within the new administration and in City Hall. Basically, no one’s going to be given any leeway if the police have an error in judgment in carrying out an operation. The climate is not in their favor.
I’m wondering if this spike in crime is the result of suddenly using very few, if any, aggressive tactics for taking illegal guns off the street. Or to make it less enticing for criminal elements to attempt these actions. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if we need an alternative aggressive strategy for taking illegal guns off our streets that can be more equitably employed, then we needed it here yesterday.
BB: The New York Times recently canvassed the neighborhood to cover the story, with some business owners speculating that “new wealth was pushing up against older poverty and creating crimes of opportunity or even hostility.” Indeed, the neighborhood has seen an influx of new, whiter, wealthier residents. Do you think that plays a role?
JJ: I think that’s just a line. We’ve seen this change in other neighborhoods, without a significant rising crime rate like this. It’s one of the narratives that people want to tell. “It’s this wealth gap thing.” “It’s a disparity in income.” But this neighborhood has been changing. It’s been changing since about 2004. Historic Victorian homes didn’t just start selling for multi-million dollar prices this year. Remember, we had a whole recession, and we didn’t have robberies at gunpoint like this during that time of severe economic struggle. And that was when employers really weren’t hiring, and people were really losing their jobs. It’s also not the summertime right now, which usually has a rise in crime, so that can’t explain it, nor is this holiday shopping season just yet either.
It feels like something else is going on. There’s obviously more opportunity now to do this kind of thing. There must be people who saw an opportunity and took advantage of it. The narrative needs to address these things a little more honestly.
BB: Is there any area of the neighborhood that is particularly crime-ridden?
JJ: East 21st Street, though it’s improved tremendously, is known as a high-crime corridor, even to this day. There’s just a lot of gun busts and arrests along that roadway. North of Foster Avenue and east of Ocean Avenue has always been a difficult stretch as well, in terms of persistent crime. Also, it wasn’t too long ago that we had incidents like the recent crimes we’re having now near Parkside Avenue and Ocean Avenue, but they didn’t tend to be random. It would be some kind of altercation, leading to a victim being stabbed and killed. There were clusters here and there, but much of it had quieted down. Some overnight break-ins at places like Sycamore on Cortelyou Road, but nothing violent. By contrast, most of the businesses in the recent crime wave have endured incredibly violent incidents, and these were stores on Cortelyou Road, Newkirk and Church Avenues. That tells you something’s changed, and whoever is doing this is confident with brandishing guns.
BB: Do you have any information from police on the perpetrators, and whether they are working in concert?
JJ: We had the Youth Officer from the 70th Precinct come and talk to us at one of our Community Board Youth Services Committee meetings, and he said that the vast majority of people who commit these crimes are young men. And some of the video evidence released confirms this. So this is an issue with our youth, and we have been working with the community on solving those issues. As to whether the perpetrators are related or working together, the police declined to provide us with whatever information they might have at this time. I’m not sure if that’s strategy as they continue to investigate. But they did tell us these are young people, and they’re using social media like Twitter and Facebook to organize and get their guns. That was the extent of what we were advised.
BB: What is the neighborhood doing to combat the problem? Are there meetings or discussions planned?
JJ: On Wednesday, the 70th Precinct Community Council will have its meeting. But first, on Monday, the Community Board 14 Public Safety Committee is meeting, and the sole topic is a discussion on the state of the precinct and crime reports, with the Precinct’s Commanding Officer. I’m hoping on Monday that maybe the police can advise us a bit more, so that we as a community can choose how we can carry on our activities while being safe and helpful to their efforts.
Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Matthew Taub.