As a way of improving community relations with the police, Deputy Inspector James Waters, commanding officer of the 109th Precinct in downtown Flushing, held a town hall meeting last week at I.S. 231.
Waters, with about 50 local residents and community regulars on hand, took questions on March 7th from a polite audience and had a bevy of assistants ready to tackle issues ranging from drugs to prostitution to youth problems.
While Waters answered each question as he does at the monthly precinct council meetings, promising to either “look into” the matter or throw his resources at a problem, the deputy inspector was successful in getting his main message across—that the police are ready to serve the public.
Assistant Chief James Tuller, Queens Borough North commander, pledged the borough’s support in helping local precincts deal with crime issues as they arise.
He also pledged his efforts in quality of life problems, which seem more and more to take up the police’s time as crime continues to drop.
Tuller said the police are listening to the public, but one common request for the beat cop to be returned to the streets is being addressed in other ways.
He said beat cops now serve many functions and are used to address crime problems where they arise. That strategy, he said, has led to a 61 percent drop in crime over the last seven years, including a seven percent drop in crime in most crime categories since last year.
The one area where crime did go up was murders, mostly due to the Wendy’s Massacre case, where seven employees of Wendy’s in Flushing were tied up and five of them killed in a robbery attempt last May.
“That was an aberration,” Waters said.
As part of the crime-reducing strategy, police are now pooling their information, identifying patterns across precinct boundaries, cooperating and sharing resources to eliminate problems.
Police have established various hotlines where the public can call to provide tips or make complaints. One such hotline is for narcotics, 1-888-374-DRUG. Another is for dealing with unruly bars or prostitution, 718-476-9350.
Police also have crime prevention experts who will go to homes to inspect where security can be improved. They also have a bevy of programs to protect cars and other possessions from being stolen.
Some of those programs were on display at the meeting in the lobby of the school on Colden Street.
Waters had planned the meeting for January when he gathered with the precinct’s community leaders who were to spread the word amongst their members. A meeting was scheduled, but postponed.
However, the change of date was not widely publicized, causing in part the low turnout.
In answer to one question about apartment burglaries, Waters said the police have intensified patrols in and around apartment buildings through the department’s Trespass Program, which allows police to do vertical sweeps to check for suspicious people.
The commander said 232 buildings are in the program, which gives police permission from landlords to enter buildings.
The resident of one building said she realized a burglar tried to enter her apartment when she found a piece of metal lodged inside her keyhole. She later learned that four apartments in her building were either targeted or burglarized.
Waters admitted that burglaries between January and March had jumped 30 percent over the same period last year, logging 206 burglaries from 154 burglaries reported last year.
One resident was concerned that many of her Asian neighbors were unwittingly letting intruders into buildings because of language problems. Waters said his officers, including some Chinese and Korean speaking ones, have been in 850 buildings over the last month talking to residents about precautions to keep burglars out.
Besides questions about illegal dumping and graffiti, Waters also addressed some problems about youths. One local resident said youths were congregating like gangs in front of PS 2.
Waters, however, insisted there was “no gang violence” in the precinct and said he differed on his definition of what constituted a gang. The woman politely disagreed, saying some of the youths were wearing gang “colors.”
Waters said he would have his gang investigation unit look into it.
On a question about a possible repeat of a shooting like the one that took place last week in California, Waters said school safety agents, who are now under the Police Department, are on constant alert for violent students.
But Waters was clear that the police alone can’t prevent tragedies like the one that happened last week. It takes parents, teachers, school counselors and others to identify the youths who are at risk, the loners for instance who may need help.
Wanda Beck Antosh, president of the 109th Precinct Community Council, expressed disappointment at the small turnout, saying the meeting was the perfect opportunity for the public, especially parents, to meet the police.
She said one consolation was that there did not seem to be any major issue that brought people out to a meeting to complain. She said this was a credit to police for keeping crime low and, for the most part, the quality of life high.
Waters, who said he expected 400 to 500 people, said he would not be deterred by the turnout. He said he will plan another such meeting in the spring.