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104th chief takes aim at truancy

By Jyoti Thottam

Less than two months into his tenure as commanding officer of the 104th Precinct, Capt. Joseph Culbert is already making progress in reversing the area's recent upswing in crime.

Culbert, a 16-year veteran of the New York Police Department, came to the precinct in January after the former commander, Capt. Joseph Byrne, was transferred to the Queens North Gang Unit, reportedly because of a 2.6 percent increase in the precinct's crime rate last year. Culbert had no harsh words for his predecessor, but he acknowledged that there was work to be done.

“I would have preferred to follow someone who was being promoted – that's always a better way to come in,” he said.

But during his first few weeks as commander of the 104th, when he was working 100-hour weeks and going through months of crime statistics, Culbert said Byrne called him frequently, offering help and advice.

“Capt. Byrne worked very hard here,” he said.

Culbert said he began by looking for patterns in the crime categories that rose last year – robberies, burglaries, felony assaults and grand larcenies.

“I read every crime report that comes in here. I'm very hands-on. I noticed a pattern in the robberies and grand larcenies during the day,” he said. “Both the victim and the perpetrators were high school students, and this was during the school day. So we started looking at truancy.”

Culbert organized sweeps of the precinct looking for high-school- age youth who were on the streets when they should have been at school. In the last several weeks, police officers in the precinct have been averaging about 200 truancy pickups per week.

“We do a sweep every day,” he said. “And we started to see a decline.”

The precinct has also posted two police officers at Grover Cleveland High School and worked with the administrators there to develop a dismissal plan for the thousands of teenagers who come to and leave the school every day.

“We started working better with the school,” he said.

Prior to his appointment at the 104th Precinct, Culbert was commander of the Brooklyn South Task Force and held different positions at precincts in Manhattan. Culbert is a native of Brooklyn, grew up in Babylon Village, L.I., and now lives in Staten Island, but he is no stranger to Queens. From 1982 to 1985, he lived in Maspeth, where his wife worked as an assistant manager of the Edwards supermarket there.

“Maspeth doesn't change much,” he said.

Culbert said he has noticed that the majority of crimes, with the exception of auto theft, are concentrated in the southern end of the precinct, in Ridgewood and Glendale.

“Ridgewood is the area that has the most crime,” he said. “Ninety percent of the robberies are in Glendale and Ridgewood.”

Culbert said he has been deploying officers a bit differently than in the past, moving them around from neighborhood to neighborhood during the day rather than posting them on fixed beats.

“We move people around to where they're needed,” he said.

The precinct is also slated to get a Model Domestic Violence Team this year, which would add at least one police officer specifically trained to deal with domestic violence situations. The 104th Precinct receives about 50 domestic incident reports per week, so the volume of reports prompted the city to assign a domestic violence team to the area.

“It's been growing and growing as an issue,” Culbert said. “It should increase our home visits. They let the perpetrator know that we're still around and that we're watching. Sometimes that can make the difference.”

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