Who is responsible for NYCHA’s safety?
When it comes to public policy, the buck stops with our elected leaders in City Hall. But on a day-to-day basis, much of the hard work of keeping the New York City Housing Authority’s developments safe, clean and livable falls to the members of our unions: the roughly 1,900 Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association members assigned to the NYPD Housing Bureau, and the more than 8,000 Teamsters Local 237 members who work for NYCHA, approximately a third of whom are also NYCHA residents.
As union presidents, we often find ourselves at odds with management policy, especially ones that place our members in harm’s way. But we also recognize that our members do not work in a vacuum. Their safety is inseparable from the safety of the New Yorkers they serve. In the NYCHA developments, the safety concerns are acute: While overall crime citywide has remained relatively flat, decreasing just 0.2 percent over the same period last year, in NYCHA developments crime is up 5.6 percent, including a 15.4 percent spike in murders, a 28.1 percent increase in burglary, and a 9.1 percent jump in felony assaults.
Unfortunately, rather than trying to bring the NYCHA residents, advocates and those who work in the developments together to reverse this trend, our city leaders and NYCHA and NYPD managers have too often imposed top-down directives that only succeed in driving a wedge between our members and NYCHA residents.
This was the case for a new plan called FlexOps, which shifts the working hours of some Local 237 members, primarily. This plan was not only a violation of Local 237’s contract, but also raised serious safety concerns for members who would be forced to work late at night or early in the morning. As part of our effort to thwart NYCHA’s push to implement FlexOps, Local 237 invited NYCHA residents and advocate leaders to the union’s offices to discuss the problems with the new plan, and initiate an open dialogue dedicated to improving conditions for NYCHA residents and workers. At the first meeting with residents and advocates, it became apparent that the meeting was valuable in forging a better understanding of the challenges we all face, and we would continue to meet. Safety was everyone’s primary concern.
Ultimately, Local 237 reached an agreement with NYCHA requiring that specific security issues raised by the union be fixed before and during the implementation of the FlexOps program. But it was clear that much more needed to be done to address the broader safety concerns.
There was also one more important set of voices missing from the discussion: the police officers who patrol the NYCHA developments. The PBA has long shared Local 237’s concerns about the inadequate lighting and security measures in many NYCHA buildings, which create dangerous conditions for police officers, NYCHA employees and residents alike. But an even greater concern was the level of police staffing; prior to the merger of the Housing Authority Police Department and NYPD in 1995, there were 2,800 police officers assigned to NYCHA developments. That number has fallen to approximately 1,900 police officers, many of whom are frequently reassigned to cover staffing shortages elsewhere in the city.
The PBA and Local 237 joined forces for the next meeting of NYCHA residents and advocates, which was a free-flowing conversation in which all sides heard variations of the same theme: Collaboration between police officers, residents and NYCHA employees is key to a safer environment, but there simply aren’t enough cops to make that collaboration possible on a consistent basis.
Shortly after the meeting, the PBA and the Teamsters wrote a joint letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, demanding more police officers for NYCHA developments. We reminded the mayor of NYCHA’s legal obligation to provide its residents with housing that is “decent, safe, sanitary, and in good repair,” and pointed to the rising crime figures which demonstrate that the goal is not being met. We called on the de Blasio administration to take meaningful action to improve the safety environment in NYCHA developments by restoring at least 900 police officers to the NYPD’s Housing Bureau as part of a citywide increase in NYPD staffing levels, which have fallen by more than 6,000 since their pre-9/11 peak.
To date, the mayor has not responded to our letter. While our two unions are considering our next step, one thing seems certain: NYCHA residents and advocate leaders are willing to work with union members to improve public housing for the benefit of all parties, without a buffer. The PBA and Local 237 want to work directly with the residents on a plan to fix the problems known best by those who live and work in these developments.
Patrick Lynch is the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. Gregory Floyd is the president of the Teamsters Local 237 and vice president-at-large of the General Executive Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.