While we process the tragic death of Tess Majors, we cannot ignore what this means for the community going forward. What is the current relationship between Columbia University and the Harlem community, and how will recent events impact that connection?

A Brief History of Morningside Park

The history of Morningside Park has been, in part, dependent on the park’s relationship with Columbia University. Physically dividing the communities of Columbia and Harlem, the park has been a point of contention for decades. Throughout the 20th century, it was known to be a hotbed for crime; Harlem and Columbia residents alike were afraid of walking through the park both before and after sunset. Throughout this time, there was and continues to be a debate regarding the park’s ownership and maintenance, with many Harlem residents fearing that the university continues to overstep its bounds.

In the 1960s, Columbia approved a plan to build a new student gymnasium in Morningside Park, thereby taking up the land allotted for public use. Due to widespread student protest in 1968, Columbia abandoned this plan and the encroachment on the public park. In 1975, Columbia promised to donate $500,000 to improve the condition of the park’s recreational area, but only delivered on giving $250,000, half of what was promised. The donation was part of the greater $12 million restoration plan undertaken by the city in the 1980s, giving rise to the question of whether the university bore more fiscal responsibility for the park’s maintenance than the City of New York, and if the university would deliver on that responsibility if it did.

As outlined in different publications throughout the last century, such as The New York Times, many Harlemites see the park as a pillar of the Harlem community. They harbor the shared concern that the university will attempt to take the park away from them, considering its location in the gentrified, continually expanding neighborhood of Morningside Heights.

Nevertheless, in recent history, local efforts by both Harlem and Columbia residents to improve Morningside Park’s safety, quality, and access for community members have taken root. Beginning as a small group run by a Columbia undergraduate in the 1980s, and reforming as an impactful, community-run effort in the late 1990s, Friends of Morningside Park has fought for the green space to be a place for community bonding by working to “raise private funds and advocate for public funds.” During the 2000s, with the addition of recreational utilities like a dog run and a new playground, groups like the Friends of Morningside Park have made Morningside Park a safer place overall by drawing in families and young people. For several, semi-quiet years, the park was a much more usable place for both Harlem residents and the Columbia community.

Despite the positive efforts, this peace has been threatened over the past few years. The NYPD 26th Precinct, which serves the area including Columbia University and Morningside Park, released Crime Statistics stating that the total crimes in the area have been down almost 76% since 1993, but have increased by about 10% in the last two years. These statistics do account for the recent murder of Tess Majors, but they are mostly comprised of other crimes like robbery and grand larceny. In the past year alone, at least 20 robberies have occurred inside Morningside Park or on its outer edges.

Morningside Park isn’t the only location seeing a rise in robberies: the subway system throughout New York City is also experiencing a similar increase. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s response is a prime example of government intervention immediately deferring to utilizing police officers. This increase in total crimes, and specifically robbery, obviously requires some kind of response from local governments. But why is it that, to solve the issue, we typically opt solely for increased policing?

Politicizing Crime and Loss

At a vigil held in Morningside Park on December 15th in remembrance of Tess Majors, all speakers—elected officials and community leaders alike—shared a common message: “No more,” as the attendees chanted in unison at one point during the event. No more overwhelming fear. No more senseless violence. No more loss of life. 

But those who took to the microphone over the course of the evening offered different possible paths for turning that hopeful chant into a reality. Some, such as City Council Member Ydanis Rodríguez, argued that the best way to reduce crime is to focus on tackling poverty in the area immediately surrounding Barnard’s and Columbia’s campuses and investing in the area’s youth. Others, like City Council Member Mark Levine, said that we can make the park safer by investing in better technology (e.g., improving lighting in the park and upgrading camera systems). 

A great number, however, focused on a possible solution to which those trying to make sense of tragedies like this often turn: increased police presence. Congressman Adriano Espaillat, for example, said that the city should consider putting resources into setting up foot patrols in the area. Levine stated that it might be beneficial to put such patrols in the park. State Assemblymember Inez Dickens even said that we need officers patrolling the park 24 hours a day.

No one went as far as to call for a return to more aggressive styles of policing such as stop-and-frisk, but many speakers expressed a belief that the best way to make the park a safer place is to place more police officers in and around it. But given the history of tension between the New York Police Department and the communities of color that reside in Harlem, is increasing police presence truly the best way to ensure safety? Or does doing so in place of pursuing other options increase the risk of further dividing Harlem and the Barnard/Columbia/Morningside Heights community?

The city has already taken steps to increase police presence. New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said Thursday morning, December 12, that the New York City Police Department would be taking an “all hands on deck” approach to stopping crime, increasing patrols in the area and utilizing tools such as light towers to prevent violence. Patrols in the area have already been increased, and those increases will likely be long-term changes. At the time of this article’s publication, the NYPD couldn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the specifics of what the increased police presence entails, or whether it will be permanent.

In the city as a whole, crime rates have hit record lows in recent months. During the first six months of 2019 (January to June), the NYPD recorded 43,294 major crimes. This number is the lowest for the first six months of the year since 1994, when the NYPD began tracking these figures. It also represents a 5.4% drop from that same period in 2018, when the NYPD recorded 45,764 crimes.

Crime rates in Morningside Park itself, however, are not following these same downward trends. As was previously mentioned, as of December 8th, there had been 20 robberies in Morningside Park in 2019, as compared to 7 during the same period in 2018. In September, NYPD crime statistics indicated that Morningside Park had more reports of robbery in 2019 than any other park in New York City (Central Park was not included in these statistics). Though the park is certainly now a safer place than it was thirty or forty years ago, calls for increased police presence near the park perhaps seem reasonable when this context is taken into account.

Given the history of tensions, much of them recent, between police and residents of Harlem, fears that increased police presence could worsen issues do not appear to be completely unfounded. Harlem was the site of the Harlem riots of 1964, which were ignited when an off-duty police lieutenant shot and killed a 15-year-old boy under ambiguous circumstances. Just this summer in Central Harlem, a 20-year-old man who had been pulled over for not using his turn signal was knocked to the ground and punched repeatedly, to the point where he needed to receive twelve stitches, when he did not immediately step away from his vehicle.

Causes of tension have spilled over much closer to Columbia’s campus in recent years. Early in the morning on June 4th, 2014, roughly 400 police officers raided the General Ulysses S. Grant Houses and Manhattanville Houses, two public housing projects located just north of campus, and arrested more than forty suspected gang members. Residents of the projects had spent years reaching out to police officers, elected officials, members of the Columbia administration, and others in an attempt to defuse tensions between rival gangs, hoping to find ways to heal the community without relying on such huge exercises of police force. However, they were not able to prevent the New York Police Department from undertaking the most extensive gang raids ever conducted in its history.

And it would be remiss not to mention race, the factor that, many would contend, is a driving force of tension between the police and the community. Though this tension has been felt throughout the city, much of it is experienced by people of color living in Harlem. While many Columbia and Barnard students, particularly white students from more affluent backgrounds, may have little reason to be concerned about increased police presence, people of color in the area might have reason to be wary, especially given the history between this city’s residents of color and the police department.

Demographic data provides us with some potentially pertinent information. The Department of City Planning breaks up census data by using “neighborhood tabulation areas.” The Morningside Heights tract (MN09) runs from 106th Street up to 125th/126th Street, and from the Hudson River all the way over to Morningside Avenue, on the east side of Morningside Park. The Central Harlem South tract (MN11) is directly adjacent, running from 110th Street up to 126th Street and from Morningside Avenue to Fifth Avenue. Though Morningside Park technically falls within Morningside Heights according to city definitions, the park is what essentially serves as a border between Morningside Heights and Central Harlem South.

Racial disparities between the two tracks are impossible to miss. According to 2013-2017 American Community Surveys data, 47.1% of the residents of the Morningside Heights tract are white, while 13.1% are black. Meanwhile, 21.2% of the residents of the Central Harlem South tract are white, while 49.9% are black.

Class, too, should be mentioned, and that same data gives us a hint at what is at play. The best metric to look at here is probably median family income rather than median household income, as this will allow us to ignore most undergraduates at Barnard and Columbia, many of whom do not work. In Morningside Heights, the median family income is $94,895. In Central Harlem South, it is $66,336, roughly two-thirds of that.

Though the park is technically located within Morningside Heights, much of Morningside Heights is elevated, as its name suggests, far above the park—and far above Harlem, the neighborhood you enter when you leave the park through the gates on its east; as such both neighborhoods have reasonable claims to the park.

More optimistic members of the community might say that this park could serve as a place for these two neighborhoods—one that is overwhelmingly white and comparatively wealthy, and one that is mostly POC and much lower-income—to find literal common ground. But some are concerned that increasing police presence in the park might drive away Harlem residents whose relationships with the NYPD are already tense. The Columbia University Women of Color Pre-Law Society is currently circulating a petition about “ensuring community-wide healing,” and noted in the body that any “just and fair process will also ensure that both communities have a better sense of trust in the School and New York City policing, which both groups have had fraught relationships with in the past as demonstrated by [the Columbia University Black Students’ Organization]’s police report.” In this group’s eyes, heightening surveillance, especially in the absence of any pursuits of restorative forms of justice, might erode any trust that currently exists between police and community.

Policing Versus Rehabilitation Efforts

These fears that increasing police presence in the park could further isolate residents of Harlem from the Morningside Heights community is one of the factors that has driven calls for alternative ways to promote safety and security. Columbia Law Professor Katherine Franke shared an opinion piece on Facebook criticizing the assumption that increased police presence will solve the issue of violence and crime in Morningside Heights at large. Instead, she suggests Columbia implement restorative measures of justice that focus on healing the community and rehabilitating the groups who participate in the local crime sphere.

Professor Franke links to Street Corner Resources, a non-profit organization whose goal is to “create a more peaceful and productive community by providing teenagers, young adults and community residents greater access to real employment, education, training, and other resources to assist them as they strive for success.” Their mission, according to a post on Idealist, is to fight to “eliminate gun and gang violence and to create a more peaceful and productive community by providing teenagers, young adults, and community members greater access to employment, education, training, and other resources to assist them as they strive for success.” The assumption here is that many young people are driven to commit crimes like robbery by a lack of opportunity and that providing them with such opportunities will reduce crime rates.

While Professor Franke brought these alternative options to the public discussion, such resources are not yet being allocated to restorative justice by the administration. In an email sent on December 12, 2019, at 11:46 AM, President Sian Beilock of Barnard College included the following statement regarding police activity: “Although this incident happened off-campus in Morningside Park, Barnard and Columbia have additional public safety officers on duty today and throughout the weekend. Additionally, the NYPD has increased its presence in the area.” Columbia University and Barnard College could not immediately respond to our request for comment on the specifics of the increased police presence at the time of publication. 

Increasing police officers has its benefits, but it also hinders restorative justice projects’ progress due to the lack of allotted funding and resources, inhibiting the progress of more structural change in the community. The increase in policing is being done partly because of the common public belief that an increased police presence promotes safety. A study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice presents an irony relevant to our neighborhood’s current state: the researchers found that “police may be able to reduce fear of crime by reducing disorder,” but that “the police intervention itself significantly increased the probability of feeling unsafe.” Put another way, the increase of police officers in an area may simultaneously help many people feel safe, since police are meant to protect citizens from crime, but make others feel unsafe, since police officers’ strategies to combat crime can be intense and often disproportionately target people of color.

Additionally, while police officers may protect civilians from crime, they do not always prevent people from becoming criminals, as Street Corner Resources aims to do. Instead of preemptively addressing crime in youth groups, as restorative justice methods do, police presence can be reactionary. It may be a means through which arrests occur, not rehabilitation and healing. An article published in the Police Quarterly directly finds that “the police should view themselves not just as a crime response agency that waits for 911 calls, but instead as a crime prevention agency that can address underlying conditions that allow crime to continue in certain areas.” This particular piece argues that police should be implementing certain strategies like hot spots policing, problem-oriented policing (POP), and focused deterrence approaches, and that police should avoid using strategies like random preventive patrol, second responder programs, and Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) to more effectively prevent crime.

After the tragedy that occurred earlier this month, figures in authoritative positions may turn to solutions that immediately appease the public, but it is imperative to consider all of the facts before implementing policy. To even approach the concept of Morningside Park transforming into a safe, enjoyable, and communal place for all, we have to critically analyze the steps being put in place now to work toward our ideal future. Are we hastily plastering a bandaid to a large, open wound, or are we truly stitching up the ever-widening division between physically adjacent but experientially distant communities?

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