Gang Takedown of New York Part Two: Bigger and Badder!


Just as the remaining open cases come to a close on “the largest gang bust in New York City history,” federal authorities have announced another “largest gang bust in New York City’s history.”

That time it was in West Harlem, on June 4, 2014, when 103 young men were taken down.

This time it’s in the Bronx, where 120 alleged members were arrested in and around the Williamsbridge neighborhood early Wednesday morning.

The NYPD, D.A.’s office, and the feds now appear to be going big as a matter of course, as anti-gang strategy has evolved over the years. In late 1997, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced that “many of the successful strategies used to attack organized crime will be employed to combat street gangs.” At that time, the NYPD initiated special anti-gang units. The first big bust after the 1997 announcement was the takedown of 39 members of the Cut Throat Crew in May 1998. Then in 2012, “Operation Crew Cut” was announced by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. A key change, he said, was paying “attention to the new battleground of social media” and focusing on anti-crime patrols in public housing. It’s been building.

All this evolution has led to authorities adopting a “go big” strategy against gangs in the past few years, which may be good in some ways. Some of the people busted in the Bronx this week are charged with murders, including the fatal stabbing of a 15-year-old boy, as well as death of Sadie Mitchell, 92, shot in her own home by a stray bullet, according to the indictment.

But there’s a problem with this approach.

“Whenever there is a large ‘sweep’ by law enforcement, the chances that innocent people get entangled in the case increase dramatically,” says Robin Steinberg, founder and executive director of Bronx Defenders.  “Friends, neighbors, bystanders, and relatives get charged merely because of their association, proximity, or relationship to the targets of the criminal investigation.”

Steinberg says this approach then forces these relatives to “cooperate” and give information or testimony against others in exchange for lighter sentences.

This is patterned after federal laws, and it enables authorities to use criminal conspiracy charges that have a far lower threshold for proof of guilt (which the Voice has covered extensively).

There are many similarities and differences between the first “largest bust” and the latest. Some of the differences: About seven hundred feds and NYPD officers were involved this time around, as opposed to some four hundred law enforcement officials in the Harlem bust. And there was more variety in the scope of alleged crimes. The Bronx gangs are suspected of selling narcotics near schools and playgrounds, committing bank fraud, and engaging in racketeering. The Violent Criminal Enterprises Unit and NYPD’s Gang Division went after the street gangs in West Harlem, but nowhere in that indictment were they ever defined as an “Enterprise.” The Bronx turf war has been going on since 2007.

Some of the similarities: The indictments concerned mainly two rival street gangs, Big Money Bosses (BMB) and 2Fly YGz. The early-morning raid involved hundreds of NYPD officers, helicopters, and the rounding-up of suspects. Similar to the 3 Staccs crew in West Harlem, members of YGz, mostly coming from the Edenwald Houses, actively used social media to post about their criminal activities — “over a hundred Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts connected defendants’ alleged criminal activity,” said Preet Bharara, United States attorney for the Southern District of New York.

“We bring these charges today so that all New Yorkers, including those in or near NYCHA public housing, can live their lives as they deserve: free of drugs, free of guns, and free of gang violence,” he added in a press release, echoing a statement made by Police Commissioner William Bratton and Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance following the West Harlem raid.

And what will probably remain the same: Likely one hundred or more of those arrested Wednesday will take plea deals. Some may be very guilty. But if the West Harlem case is any indication, others will have the most specious pieces of evidence, including Facebook and other social media posts, used against them. Rather than risk decades behind bars, they will opt for a handful of years.

“These big roundups first started with anti-gang legislation years ago, but it’s been growing, and it’s getting trickier the bigger these sweeps get,” says Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, law professor and expert on race, crime, and the administration of justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. While the most serious criminal offenders must be apprehended, Jones-Brown says, that small number of “bad actors” isn’t being distinguished from those who are minimally involved.

“They’re doing these broad sweeps, especially when it comes to black and brown young men,” she says. “And we can’t trust that those on the periphery won’t get caught up as police and authorities continue operating on larger and larger scales.”