By Nada Tawfik BBC News, New York
This video can not be played
February always reignites a deep pain in Jackie Rowe-Adams. It was in this month that her two boys, Anthony and Tyrone, were fatally shot, 16 years apart. She recounts with disbelief still that a 13-year-old fired the bullet that killed her second son.
But Jackie, a lifelong resident of Harlem, New York, says she has never seen violence in the neighbourhood like today. It’s more terrifying than the 1980s and 90s – “so unreal that you are scared to walk outside because bullets are flying everywhere and hitting innocent people”, the 73-year-old says.
Indeed, 2022 is off to a violent start. Gun crime in New York City is up by a third compared to last year, and it only takes a quick scan of the headlines to understand the fear Jackie and her community are living with.
So far this year in Harlem, two officers have been fatally shot on duty, a 19-year-old fast-food worker was killed during a robbery, a man was shot in broad daylight outside the iconic Apollo theatre and stray bullets hit a bus full of passengers in East Harlem.
And those are just a few examples.
Amid this violence, New York has become a case study for a nation grappling with demands for public safety and calls to reform police.
Following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2020, racial justice protests gripped the US, and there were widespread calls to defund the police.
But that same year during the pandemic, the United States experienced its greatest annual increase in murder on record, according to FBI data. Homicide rates are still on the rise today.
When voters in progressive New York City went to the ballot box in the 2021 mayoral election, they selected a former police captain with a platform of cracking down on crime to restore the city to pre-Covid times.
Mayor Eric Adams has now released his “Blueprint to End Gun Violence,” that promises more police in the streets. Mr Adams’s plans are not only a test for his new administration, but one for Democrats, for whom policing has become a flashpoint that has divided the party.
For Jackie, Mr Adams’ plans can’t be implemented soon enough – she supports them wholeheartedly. Jackie runs Harlem Mothers Save, a support group for families who have lost loved ones to gun violence. They’ve comforted two new members a month for the last year and want immediate action to stop the deaths.
Denise Paul, 65, has a problem with those who are crying out to defund the police because it will hurt her community.
“People get on the bandwagon and are not aware of what they’re getting themselves into and what they stand to lose,” she says. To this day she can remember “Jack the cop” from the 23rd precinct and wants to get back to that localised model where officers know the people in the community they serve.
Iris Bailey, 74, sympathises with those on the streets who want an end to racial profiling by police.
But she, too, believes they need to work closer with the NYPD. “We don’t want to fight the police, we need the police. There is nobody else to call if something happens to us, there’s absolutely nobody else,” says Iris.
She hopes training and new transparency around viewing an officer’s history, including any complaints of abuse, will bring meaningful change this time.
And then there’s Jackie. She says the mayor has the right mix of ideas, even if some are controversial. In particular, she supports proposals to allow judges to consider “dangerousness” when setting bail and the return of a controversial unit of plain clothes police that was disbanded in 2020. Mr Adams wants to rebuild the force as an anti-gun unit that will be equipped with body cameras and more easily identifiable as police.
Jackie thinks it will work this time around because all eyes are watching, and if not, then at least they tried.
Other Democrats, though, worry that this means the era of “tough on crime” policies is back. Councilwoman Kristin Richardson Jordan’s office is a stone’s throw away from the 32nd precinct, where memorials for two slain officers, Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora, have been set up.
But their deaths haven’t made her question her belief that the NYPD should one day be abolished. Instead, she’s doubled down on her views. Progressive policies, she feels, haven’t been given the time and money needed to give them a real shot to work.
“When I talk about the potential for a world without police, I’m not saying tomorrow and I don’t know anyone who is saying tomorrow,” she explains. “Those of us talk about defunding, we need to also be talking about funding the community, because that’s what we mean.
“We don’t just mean defund the police, we mean fund mental emotional health services, fund housing, jobs, all of the things that would stop violence in the first place.”
In her view, the officers’ deaths were preventable if the city had invested more in mental health services and reducing poverty.
This policy debate primarily affects minority, low-income areas, in fact some parts of New York may not fully grasp there is an emergency.
Despite Jackie’s fears, citywide homicides are still below the peak of the 1990s, when 1,000 to 2,000 people were being killed every year. But in communities such as Harlem where the crime is concentrated, Jackie and the other mothers are not the only ones who feel things are worse than they’ve ever been, in large part due to the stressors posed by Covid-19 and the high proliferation of guns.
Jarrell E Daniels knows about growing up with trauma, in the home and around the neighbourhood. Before being incarcerated as a teenager, he dealt with a host of city agencies, from the Administration for Children’s Services, foster care and homeless shelters to the Department of Education. Not one of those systems intervened in his life to provide meaningful counselling or to teach him how to respond to situations without violence, he says.
At the age of 17, he and his 10 friends were charged with attempted murder as a result of being in a gang, and he spent six years in prison.
Jarrell says he was a product of his circumstances and wants others to understand that in order to break the cycle of crime. While he empathises deeply with Harlem Mothers SAVE, he disagrees with them.
“You’ve got to understand that these people are coming back home. They’re not getting 100 years, they’re not getting death sentences, they’re coming back home,” Jarrell said.
“The important thing that we need to do is, number one, we keep as many people from committing this act to begin with, and then number two, when we know these people are coming back home we support them in the right way. For the mothers who lost their sons my heart is with them. But I also think we have to educate them around the circumstances of what they’re encouraging law enforcement to do because of how they’re feeling in those moments.”
The answer is to address the root causes of crime and to create more programmes and support for youth, he believes. He now helps teens in juvenile detention centres across New York and has founded a programme at Columbia University’s Center for Justice to bring young New Yorkers together with city officials to discuss community challenges.
The balance between personal liberty and safety is a delicate one. A lot is at stake for Mayor Eric Adams, and more importantly generations of New Yorkers, if he doesn’t get it right. As Jackie put it, all eyes are watching to see what happens.
Minneapolis rejects move to replace police department
A weekend in America: Shootings shock capital city
Is the US seeing a surge in violent crime?