By J. DAVID GOODMAN
Complaints of misconduct by officers in the 120th Precinct on the North Shore rival those in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
In a corner of Staten Island, on a sidewalk across from a tiny triangular park, a fatal police confrontation last month has drawn focus to an area plagued by disorder, and rife with simmering tensions over policing and poverty.
Eric Garner’s death in police custody on July 17 has been a lightning rod for protests over police brutality, including a major demonstration here planned for Saturday, and a grand jury investigation into possible criminal charges against the officers whose chokehold and takedown of Mr. Garner, the New York City medical examiner ruled, caused his death.
It has also invited scrutiny on the 120th Precinct, where distrust of police officers splits along racial lines.
Complaints of police misconduct here rival those in the Bronx and Brooklyn; stop-and-frisk encounters were among the highest in the city, and have declined more slowly. In the first half of 2014, the precinct recorded 1,354 stops, a citywide high, even as its coverage area shrank significantly last year.
Murders in the precinct’s historical boundaries have nearly doubled this year to nine, more than the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brownsville or East New York. Gangs are so prevalent that the New York Police Department moved to test an ambitious, community-based intervention program here last year, before the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio decided it would be better in Brooklyn.
Among the city’s busiest police precincts — the “A” houses in the department’s old jargon — the 120th Precinct, covering Staten Island’s northeast, is often overlooked, blending into an errant vision of homogeneity that many outsiders have of the borough. “It’s an island amongst islands,” said the Rev. Demetrius S. Carolina, of the First Central Baptist Church in the Stapleton section.
Long an afterthought amid the gunfire of Brooklyn and the Bronx, the precinct now frames, in microcosm, the debate over the “broken windows” style of policing associated with the police commissioner, William J. Bratton, in which heavy enforcement of small crimes — like selling cigarettes for 75 cents apiece on the street, as Mr. Garner was suspected of doing — is seen as preventing serious felonies.
In the aftermath, videos emerged of violent arrests in the precinct, where neon stickers mark shuttered drug spots and a troubled Jersey Street deli has its own police command post parked out front. Stories of unpleasant, racially tinged interactions surfaced.
Mr. Bratton traveled to the precinct after Mr. Garner’s death and commended its hard-working officers, who have said they now face taunts from residents and resistance from suspects. The borough commander for Staten Island, Assistant Chief Edward Delatorre, dismissed criticism of the precinct, saying he had not heard any.
“You’re assuming I’m hearing the precinct beat up,” Chief Delatorre said in a recent interview at the borough headquarters on Hylan Boulevard, south of the 120th. “What I’m hearing out there are cops getting accolades. I’m getting letters, very positive letters.”
Most of the officers who work in the 120th Precinct also live on Staten Island, an arrangement not seen in other boroughs, but unsurprising in a department where 3,000 uniformed members live in the middle-class borough of 470,000. That proximity to work means that off-duty officers frequently alert their colleagues about crimes or tips, in the manner of a small town, Chief Delatorre said.
“They study who the known recidivists are, the known criminals who are wanted, and they get to know them,” he said. “They have a real vested interest in the quality of life and the level of crime on this island.”
Such attention is often welcome. But it also leads to repeated encounters with small-time offenders that, residents said, can turn ugly. Residents object to the increased attention that living in a high-crime neighborhood brings to everyday activities.
The police twice arrested Lenny Bishop, 21, of Park Hill, in cases that were later dismissed. The first time, officers mistook Mr. Bishop, who is black, for a robbery suspect; he spent several days in jail. In July, he was roughed up by officers after riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Surveillance video shows a verbal back and forth and a search of his basketball shorts before a pair of officers lifted Mr. Bishop off his feet and slammed him to the ground. He is suing the department.
“A lot of the officers who are policing on the North Shore are Staten Island residents but not North Shore residents,” said Deborah Rose, who represents the area on the City Council. “They haven’t been exposed to the level of diversity that we have in the North Shore communities.”
Mr. Garner, 43, was among those familiar to officers, the sort whose face and name are studied as a “known recidivist” by those on patrol. A March complaint to 311 named “Eric” alongside others said to be selling loose cigarettes and marijuana on Bay Street. The next day, Mr. Garner was arrested there for illegal cigarette sales.
Mr. Garner would have known the officers who approached him too, if not by name, then by type: plainclothes police ordered to treat small crimes as pressing concerns.
When a plainclothes anticrime team confronted him last month, he refused to go. Officers wrestled him to the ground as one officer, Daniel Pantaleo, wrapped an arm around Mr. Garner’s neck; he died soon afterward.
Officer Pantaleo, a resident of Staten Island’s South Shore, had his badge and gun removed pending results of a district attorney’s investigation. Another officer, Justin Damico, also of southern Staten Island, was reassigned to desk duty.
Long before, the area had become a priority for the police. Fourteen of the 15 Staten Island gangs tracked by the department can be found north of the Staten Island Expressway.
Along Park Hill Avenue, the police are a regular presence. In a nearby city park, young men and teenagers congregate.
“It was a lot of killing; I understand why the cops would be out here,” said Mohamed Jenkins, 24, who was waiting near an overflowing water fountain for his turn on the basketball court on a recent Thursday afternoon. “But this is where I had my first fight, my first kiss. They stop me in my own home, it’s outrageous. To them, everyone is a gangbanger.”