By Michelle Han
With a sharp rise in the number of homicides in southern Queens in 1999, police are plotting new strategies to bring the murder rate more in line with the borough's overall decline in crime.
“We're concerned with the homicides,” said Queens Patrol South Assistant Chief Joseph Fox at a meeting of the Queens Borough Cabinet last week. “We're going to turn it around and we're going to do it basically by making adjustments throughout the year.”
The murder rate rose by 40 percent last year – from 55 to 77 – in the eight precincts that make up Queens Patrol South: the 100th, 101st, 102nd, 103rd, 105th, 106th, 107th and 113th precincts.
The 102nd Precinct, which covers Richmond Hill, Kew Gardens, parts of Ozone Park and Woodhaven, recorded one of the steepest spikes, with 12 homicides in 1999 compared to 3 in 1998.
The overall crime rate is dramatically lower than it has been in years both citywide and boroughwide and many Queens residents – including those who live in the 102nd Precinct – say their neighborhoods feel safer than they did years ago.
But police, whose careers rise and fall on precinct-by-precinct crime statistics recorded weekly for the seven major crime categories, are employing new strategies to combat the sharp homicide increase in Queens Patrol South.
As in many parts of the city, plainclothes officers in the Street Crimes Unit are back on the streets in Queens Patrol South.
In March, Police Commissioner Howard Safir ordered all plainclothes officers back in uniform following the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant who was killed in a fusillade of bullets by plainclothes officers in the Bronx Street Crimes Unit.
The four officers who hit Diallo with 41 bullets are facing murder charges in a trial upstate.
After year-to-date crime statistics showed a 6.5 percent increase in murders citywide and a 34 percent increase in Queens Patrol South, the commissioner announced in September he would allow commanding officers to decide how many plainclothes officers to put back on the streets.
Fox said this does not mean an increase in the actual number of officers assigned to Queens South, but a shift in deployment of plainclothes officers. Patrol South has roughly 30 officers in the Street Crimes Unit.
The Queens Narcotics Squad will also play a role in the effort to reduce homicides and other violent crimes in Patrol Queens South, Fox said.
“The thing that drives our crime is the drug trade,” he said, noting that many of the 77 homicides in 1999 were drug related.
But as law enforcement efforts take drug dealers off the streets, a new band of hopefuls inevitably rises up in an attempt to take their places.
“People are trying to fill in the voids and that leads to violence,” Fox said. “There's a lot of money in narcotics.”
Violence may stem from drug trade deals that go sour after police make drug arrests, or from drug dealers seeking retribution, Fox said.
The 105th, 103rd, and 113th precincts, which contain hot spots of drug activity, have special narcotics initiative programs in place, Fox said in an interview, and the Patrol South Narcotics Squad travels to provide backup to areas where drug activity is heavy.
Domestic violence is another contributor to the homicide rate. Of the 77 murders in 1999, 13 occurred during robbery attempts, while another 13 were domestic-related, Fox told Borough Cabinet members. In the 105th and 113th precincts, there will be an increase in the number of domestic violence officers, he said.
Domestic violence will also be the focus for reducing crime in northern Queens, explained Patrol North Assistant Chief James Tuller.
Tuller said a new tack – simply asking whether there are any guns in the house whenever officers go out on a domestic violence call – has proven successful so far.
In one instance, he said, the method resulted in the seizure of 18 firearms from a single apartment in the 108th Precinct.
Queens North covers the 104th, 108th, 109th, 110, 111th, 112th, 114th and 115th precincts.
When asked by Borough President Claire Shulman how police were addressing a crime spike in the 104th Precinct, which covers Maspeth, Middle Village, Glendale and Ridgewood, Tuller said a new captain has been assigned to the command and several new initiatives are being put into place.
Both chiefs implored the public to work with law enforcement officials by reporting incidents in their communities.
At the meeting and in a later interview, Fox emphasized that there has not been a dramatic increase in any crime category and there are several indicators there are fewer violent crimes.
For example, he said, the number of shooting incidents rose by 3 or 4 percent instead of the larger margins that marked years past, and assaults have fallen, by 11.5 percent.
Approximately half the murders committed in Patrol South in 1999 did not involve the use of a gun, Fox said.
“I'm not completely sure what that means. It gives me some indication that we don't have as many weapons on the street,” he said.
In fact, every other major crime category fell by at least 6 percent last year, with the exception of auto thefts, which dropped by 1 percent, and murders, which rose.
And while the homicide rate of 77 last year is a drop in the bucket compared to the quadruple-digit murder rates that marked the early 1990s, the Patrol South chief expressed regret over the occurrence of any homicides at all.
“We talk about a reduction or an increase in numbers,” he said. “But really what we're talking about here is people, families that have been shattered.”