Vol. 11, No. 25 Dec. 31, 1998 - Jan. 13, 1999


Tensions Flare Around Safety Near Schools

By Jordan Moss

Vivian Ramos, a working single mom, worries enough when she lets her 10-year-old child pick up her 7-year-old after school at PS 46 and then walk together to a babysitter's house.

But lately there's even greater cause for parental anxiety, according to Ramos and more than a hundred of her neighbors who attended an emergency meeting with police at Our Lady of Refuge Church on Dec. 21.

Though prompted by two serious incidents involving guns in the vicinity of PS 46 and Our Lady of Refuge School, parents say the sound of gunshots are as normal these days on their Fordham Bedford streets as dogs barking or cars honking.

The events of that week, however, so close to the schools and the 2,100 children that attend them, seemed to force the anger and fear into the wide open, with parents demanding police presence around schools and questioning the Police Department's commitment to protecting the community.

"There's always shooting," said Renee Presha, who has three young daughters. "It's just that it was so close to the school and stray bullets don't have a name."

On Dec. 16, a school crossing guard evacuated the OLR School's play street on East 196th Street, after police received a report about a man with a gun in the area. Parents claimed that officers came onto the street with their guns drawn. Deputy Inspector Kenneth McGrath, commander of the 52nd Precinct, said it's up to each officer's discretion when to draw his or her weapon.

And on Dec. 17 police evacuated classrooms at OLR and at PS 46, and sealed off the neighborhood after a man was seen firing a gun from a window at 2734 Bainbridge Ave. in the direction of PS 46.

At the Dec. 21 meeting, parents said police never notified school staff, and that there was no follow-up presence in the area to calm things down. McGrath, however, said that police did patrol the vicinity after the shootings, and that he himself was in the community the following day.

Tensions surface
In discussing the two school incidents, the meeting frequently grappled with the tensions between Our Lady of Refuge parishioners and police officers. Questioned by a resident about why a police officer in the street on the day of one of the incidents refused to respond to a resident's question, Lt. Joseph Cassidy, the 52nd Precinct's integrity officer, said there was a "hesitancy on the part of officers to get involved with OLR for fear there's going to be some kind of repercussions" and that the cop in question "felt very hesitant as far as giving information."

That suggestion sparked anger from residents. "Their duty and responsibility is to serve and protect us, not to be hesitant, not to be apprehensive," Iris Grimaldi, a parent, said. "I expect that and I demand that as a citizen of this community and as a taxpayer."

Participants in the meeting seemed perplexed that their church membership was a factor in tensions between residents and cops.

Zaida Arce, a parent of a fourth grader at Our Lady of Refuge School, said the church's regularly monthly meetings with precinct officials were useful to police, likening the sessions to an "umbilical cord," linking cops and community. Monsignor John Jenik, OLR's pastor, regularly encourages parishioners at Mass to help police by giving them information about illegal activities in the area, Arce said.

"If he wasn't prompting them to cooperate with police, they [the police] would not be at all involved in the community," Arce said.

Cheryl Jenkins, another OLR parent, agreed. "How can they be hesitant with us when we're the ones who are trying to keep the community together?" she said. "We want to work with them."

Esperanza Guzman, a parent at PS 46, which was also well represented at the meeting, said she'd like to see cops more involved in the schools and interact more with residents, so that the children can get to know them and respect them.

Calls for "a better understanding"
At the meeting, Cassidy, calling for "a better understanding between the community and patrol officers" invited residents to "come out and address our roll calls and discuss your concerns with them." Another factor leading to poor communication is the high turnover rate of officers in the Five-Two, McGrath said.

Jenik, the initiator of the often-contentious monthly meetings at OLR, is one of the community's most vocal critics of the precinct and the Police Department.
McGrath said his cops' feelings about Jenik may be at the root of some of the tensions Cassidy was referring to.

"Fr. Jenik is a political force and they're a little reluctant in dealing with [him]." McGrath said. But he added, Jenik is "trying to do the best he can for the people he represents, and that's our job to do, too."

For their part, parishioners say the rampant drug dealing and escalating violence in the neighborhood necessitates Jenik's, and the community's, vigilance and activism.

"We have to live in this neighborhood and bring up our children," Arce said.
One thing police and Jenik seem to agree on, however, is the need for more police officers in the 52nd Precinct.

"There's not a precinct commander in the city that doesn't want more cops," McGrath said.

"We do not have the cops that the crime and population warrant," Jenik said.

Nine hundred or 12 percent of the 7,000 recently recorded radio calls in the Five-Two, came from the sector surrounding the schools, McGrath said. The area accounts for about 30% of the arrests in the entire precinct, McGrath said.
In response to parental pleas for more police protection, McGrath said at the meeting that he did not have the manpower "to put a fixed post on that corner." However, the day after the meeting, a police car with two officers was parked in front of PS 46.

"I told them I would do what I could do for them," McGrath said, adding that he didn't want to make concrete promises the night of the meeting that he wasn't sure he could keep.

Arce credited the meeting for getting action. "It was productive to the point of getting their attention," she said.

Help is on the way
Meanwhile, more comprehensive and sustained help is expected when the Five-Two, along with two other Bronx precincts, becomes the target of a massive drug initiative in February. A special narcotics team comprising a lieutenant, four sergeants, and 32 police officers will be assigned to the precinct indefinitely, McGrath said.

Parents are hoping the new effort sends the bad guys packing for good.

Vivian Ramos moved her family to the area from the south Bronx because of problems with drugs and violence. "And now it's the same thing here," she said.

Ed. note: Our Lady of Refuge will hold its next monthly public safety meeting on Tues., Jan. 5 at 7:30 in the church's parish center. Call 367-4690 for more information.

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