By Murray Weiss
DNAinfo Contributing Columnist
The Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has made it a mission to get out into the neighborhoods to get a real feel for what is going on and to get feedback from the people he serves.
He didn't need to go far to see the affects the recent rise in city crime.
Earlier this year Vance visited the Elmendorf Reform Church on East 123rd Street and Third Avenue in East Harlem to attend Sunday services on Jan. 31.
The Elmendorf Church has a large crucifix hanging outside from its second story and lush red double doors that lead to the sanctuary. The church is the oldest in Harlem, dating back to 1660, and its former home on First Avenue is the site of one of the city’s oldest African burial grounds.
Vance rolled up on the block passing graffiti covered steel gates dotting the street. Then, as he stepped onto the sidewalk, he could see evidence of a reality claiming the lives of today’s young people in Harlem – guns.
Spanning sections of East 123rd Street near the church were yards of yellow NYPD crime scene tape and plastic evidence cones that covered spent shells fired the night before. They were the grim remnants of the shooting of an 18-year-old.
Let us pray.
The police statistics for 2010 are foreboding insofar as they may indicate that crime may have bottomed-out after nearly two decades of declines and are on the way up. Murders were up 14 percent last year. So were rapes. Robberies, a true bellwether category, were up 4.7 percent.
Just four days after he spoke at the Elmendorf Church, Vance headed again into East Harlem to host his first Town Hall meeting there. The event took place Feb. 3 at the Taino Towers Crystal Ball Room at 240 East 123rd St. where he talked about crime issues facing his borough and the city.
With shootings and killings rising in Manhattan, Vance did not need a crystal ball to know that a shooting incident was in the future. He just could not know how soon.
Just 15 minutes after the district attorney left the meeting, gunfire erupted on the street. A 19-year-old man was wounded.
Vance then appeared before the Association for a Better New York on Feb. 15. He talked about how much the city had changed for the better since real estate great Lew Rudin created the organization in the early 1970s.
Vance referred to the seemingly incomprehensible era when New York annually recorded more than 2,000 murders a year, and 100,000 robberies with a car stolen virtually every 6 minutes.
"Although it may be comforting to compare where were in the '70s and '80s to where we are today, we are reminded every day when we read the newspaper or watch the news that crime is a constant in our city," he told the audience. "In 2010, there were 36 percent more shooting incidents reported in Manhattan and 27 percent more shooting victims (than the previous year)," he said, adding that homicides are up 31 percent year over year.
"And of the 320 defendants indicted last year for carrying loaded weapons, 96 of them — nearly 30 percent — were 18 years or younger," Vance continued. "These are young men and women who should be headed to college, not prison."
Vance felt emboldened that he was in a position to come up with ways to combat the violence and make the city an even safer place. To that end he has created "Crime Strategy Units" each focusing on specific neighborhoods in the borough to identify "hot spots" and target criminal activity and the kinds of gang related crews responsible for much of the gun, drugs and violence in various sections of Manhattan.
It is the type of fresh approach the city needs if the crime levels are going to remain at record lows. And it is just the type of action his embattled Manhattan neighborhoods desire.