The Journey to Community Policing

Community policing, a strategy of policing that focuses on building ties and working closely with members of the community, has been the practice of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation’s Public Safety Department for over five years now and has evolved over time, explained Jeff Laszcyzch, at the most recent Roosevelt Island Residents Association Public Safety Committee meeting.

Laszcyzch, a nine-year veteran of the department, started his tenure here under former Chief Keith Guerra, who was criticized for his style of policing, described by Public Safety Committee chair Erin Feely-Nahem as a “philosophy of zero tolerance and maximum enforcement.”

Community Rally Poster advocating removal of Chief Guerra

Chief Keith Guerra’s departure was ultimately announced on June 14, 2013 after a rally organized by the Public Safety Committee.The objective of that rally was to oust Guerra and get justice for the victims of the abuse suffered under him.

At the time, Feely-Nahem described the climate under Guerra, “You don’t have to arrest somebody for loitering; you can ask them to move on. If a child is standing in a hallway waiting for a friend, it isn’t necessary to arrest him. All you have to do is ask them to move on. It isn’t necessary to arrest somebody or give a ticket for a U-turn if it’s the first time the person has been on the Island. You can tell them [U-turns] are not allowed here, and give them a pass. I saw them do that to a man the day of the Cherry Blossom Festival – an Asian man. He made a U-turn. I spoke to him afterward. He said, “I’ve never been here before. I didn’t realize... I’ve never been here before.”

The most public example of Guerra’s tactics was the case of Anthony Jones, a 20-year-old Islander who was hospitalized with a punctured lung after an arrest, during which Public Safety officers allegedly beat him. Ultimately Jones ended up at Mount Sinai Hospital under 24/7 PSD guard, cuffed to his bed, for seven days. His mom was unable to see him. Trespassing was originally given as the cause for the Jones arrest, with resisting arrest added, he ultimately was not charged with anything. Jones maintained that he was lawfully visiting a friend at his apartment building before being handcuffed, maced, beaten, kicked, punched, slammed to the ground, and subdued, all while in handcuffs.

Feely-Nahem said, “That was the beginning of the Public Safety Committee struggle. After several demonstrations, and gradually the support from elected leaders, RIRA was able to encourage RIOC to have Guerra leave.”

Jeff Laszcyzch, Public Safety Department

Back then Laszcyzch felt it was “us versus them,” meaning PSD versus the community, and felt like “nothing we did was right.” He went on to say, “I don’t feel like that anymore.” “It’s unanimous in the department that [Current PSD Chief Jack McManus] has been fantastic in instilling the commitment of community first.”

This isn’t lip service. There have been multiple public safety oriented town halls, some motivated by a specific incident or to share pertinent information, and others to give community members an opportunity to be heard. Additionally, officers coach soccer and are mentors to Island youth. “[Working with youth] has really expanded how people perceive the department,” says Laszcyzch.

“That’s one of the first things Jack implemented. None of this works if we don’t talk,” Laszcyzch said, explaining that these community relationships are significant.

Laszcyzch says this mentality trickles down to individual officers and describes a “certain pride in working here that we didn’t have in the past.” Employees are now service minded. “It wasn’t always like that,” he says. “You don’t have to take the hardest tactic because you’ll run into [the same] people again tomorrow.”

Vertical patrols are a big part of officer’s daily routines. “We’re walking through each of these floors,” said Laszcyzch, explaining that officers start on the top floor of a building, check all stairwells, AVAC rooms, and hallways to ensure apartment doors are closed and to keep a lookout for hazardous conditions. In 2018, PSD conducted 868 vertical patrols in Roosevelt Landings, 184 in Island House, 177 in Westview and 72 in Rivercross. These buildings pay a portion for a portion of the PSD in their ground lease. Riverwalk and Octagon buildings don’t have similar agreements in place.

They also conduct vertical patrols of Motorgate. There, they look for loitering, property damage, and illegal activity. Typically, says Laszcyzch, it is people looking for their car who need help in Motorgate. He says, “It’s been a long time since a car was stolen.”

That is partly due to the cameras pointed all over the Island. Most of Motorgate is “always being monitored,” says Laszcyzch, though he makes sure to clarify that “you can’t see every little bit of Roosevelt Island;” cameras are located at all RIOC facilities, in Motorgate, and at other points on the Island.

In the Public Safety office is a room full of screens where live footage from the cameras is always being monitored, with an officer stationed in that room at all times, sometimes two. The footage doesn’t live forever although, in some cases, an officer can give footage “protected” status and that video will never get deleted.

Chief Jack McManus embodying the principals of community policing on Halloween last year

McManus has changed the energy, not only in the department, but on the Island as well. Laszcyzch says, “He has thrown himself in front of every complaint.” And Deputy Chief Kevin Brown has “ramped training up to a level we never had before.” He described having access to training “we never even sniffed before.”

One such training, provided this past summer, allows PSD to carry a portable pocket-size device that injects the opiate antidote, Naloxone, at the emergency response scenes of drug overdoses. “Naloxone, also called Narcan, saves lives by immediately reversing the effects of heroin a citizen could be suffering from,” PSD Chief Jack McManus said, after announcing the move to allow the peace officers to carry and administer the prescription medication.

Police officers, who increasingly end up serving as first responders in drug overdose situations, have played a significant role in fighting the overdose epidemic in other cities across the county. More than 20,000 New York City Police Department (NYPD) police officers also carry Naloxone.

The uniformed members of the Public Safety Department (PSD) are special patrol men and women designated by the Police Commissioner of the City of New York, and authorized by Section 2.20 of the Criminal Procedure Law to act as peace officers. The term "peace officer" is used to describe anyone who has statutory law enforcement powers. Police officers are peace officers as well.

Public Safety Department Chair,

Erin Feely-Nahem

PSD officers are the front-line problem-solvers for the Roosevelt Island community. Working closely with the NYPD’s 114th Precinct, FDNY, and emergency medical services (EMS) – all based in Queens – the Public Safety Department provides a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week presence on the island.

They assist in enforcing all State and City laws, including traffic regulations and those sections of the Penal Law, Criminal Procedure Law, and Vehicle and Traffic Laws as they pertain to Roosevelt Island. In addition, PSD officers handle traffic control, parking enforcement, the escorting of oversized trucks via the Helix for construction projects, commercial deliveries, and TV and movie shoots among others.

Officers are trained to know these laws and regulations, the laws of arrest, and the constitutional rights of the individual. PSD officers have undergone extensive training for sensitivity to bias crimes and crimes involving sexual assault and harassment.

As of September 1, 2018, PSD officers had responded to 1,519 calls for service in 2018 consisting of more than 35 different types of requests, including EMS, shoplifting, disabled cars and vehicle accidents, juvenile-related incidents, lost-and-found property, landlord-tenant disputes, grand larceny, robbery assault and burglary.

Led by Chief Jack McManus and Deputy Chief Kevin Brown, both former high-ranking officers for the NYPD, the Public Safety Department has more than 45 officers, and additional civilian employees who work in three-different shifts, covering 24 hours each day.

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