By Carla Zanoni
WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Alarmed by the wave of violent crime breaking out in Upper Manhattan, elected officials gathered Sunday to call for a return to the kind of tactics that were used to drive out the drug trade in the area less than two decades ago.
"We are very concerned that this rash of recent killings of young people will drive us back to the old days," said State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who blamed much of the violence on a growing problem with youth gangs in Upper Manhattan. "There’s no space in our community for our youth to be involved in gangs."
"These are not your West Side Story gangs, like the Jets and the Sharks," he later added. "These are sophisticated gangs that are involved in the drug trade and are violent."
On Friday, 20-year-old Juan Benito was stabbed to death on St. Nicholas Avenue near 188th Street. Police are searching for a man caught on surveillance footage recorded the night of the murder.
On Jan. 9, 16-year-old Adionis Santana was stabbed to death a few blocks away from where Benito was killed.
The precinct has been trying to tamp down on the rising murder rate with additional manpower, but local politicians believe more is needed.
So Espaillat, City Councilmen Ydanis Rodriguez and Robert Jackson and Assemblyman Guillermo Linares announced the creation of two new task forces that will follow a similar crime fighting approach that was used to stop a crime wave in Washington Heights during the '80s and '90s.
A similar effort in the area in 1990 helped reduce crime in the 34th Precinct from 103 murders in 1990 to nine murders in 1998, according to CompStat.
But another potential factor in the massive drop in crime was that the NYPD's 34th Precinct was cut in half in 1994, the New York Times reported at the time. Previously, all off Washington Heights and Inwood was patroled by the 34th Precinct, whereas now the 34th covers north of 179th Street, and the 33rd patrols down to 155th Street.
According to the elected officials, the two task forces will try to include state and federal law enforcement in managing crime in the area, because some of the suspected gang activity might interest the FBI, task force officials said.
The second part of the task force mission is to reach out to the community through faith-based agencies and local schools to try to reach the youth who might be susceptible to gangs and violence.
The task forces will draw on the support of elected officials, local community leaders, the District Attorney’s Office and the captains of the 33rd and 34th Precincts.
"Most of our teenagers are doing good things, we want to make sure that the young people are safe in the street," Rodriguez said.
Jackson, who represents the western swath of Manhattan from Harlem through Inwood, said he will work with his colleagues to develop a strategy to stop the violence.
"I’m standing here east of Broadway because violence doesn’t know the difference between east and west," he said. "We must educate our communities now."
Washington Heights and Inwood’s newly inaugurated Assemblyman Linares echoed the sentiment.
"We need to live in a united community," he said.
"Even one killing is too much, we want it to go down to zero."