INWOOD — More than 200 Inwood residents crowded into a school gymnasium in the Park Terrace section of the neighborhood Wednesday night to hear how law enforcement and elected officials plan to deal with rising crime in the neighborhood.
Many residents voiced frustration with a steadily increasing crime rate in the area, calling for increased patrols and the possibility of Inwood receiving its own precinct.
The meeting was held less than two blocks from where a police officer was accused of raping an Inwood school teacher behind a two-story house on Park Terrace West last Friday.
The incident has residents on high alert, especially as it comes just days after they learned that the commanding officer of the neighborhood’s 34th Precinct, Jose Navarro, was removed from his post due to a sharp increase in crime this year.
Crime in the northern Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods has seen a 23.6 percent increase since January compared to last year. Deputy Inspector Andrew Capul was also removed from his post as commanding officer in 2010 because of rising crime rates.
The 34th Precinct's newly assigned commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Barry Buzzetti, introduced himself to the crowd a week after coming on board, asking for the community’s help in bringing crime back down.
"I'm not pushing the job of inspecting this neighborhood to you," he said. "I'm just asking for your help."
Buzzetti spoke little about the alleged rape in Inwood, except to express his horror learning of the incident as a father of two teenage girls.
"It hits home to the entire police department," he said. "Our outrage is indescribable. My words can’t describe the outrage."
Buzzetti said he is currently studying crime statistics to make decisions about where to concentrate cops in the area, and he called on residents to confide in police about hot spots of crime.
He promised swift action on the part of his police force.
"I'm not going to condone a lax attitude around any of this," he said.
But residents seemed wary of promises they said they've heard at countless police and community meetings over the past several years.
"Every time we go to these meetings all we hear is talk, talk, talk," a resident said at the meeting. "There is no law enforcement here."
Residents said they have experienced a diminished sense of safety in the precinct for several years and listed a bevy of quality-of-life issues throughout Washington Heights and Inwood.
"Nobody comes to help," a single mother said of her experience living in Inwood for more than 10 years. "A lot of things are happening and nobody knows what’s going on. I don’t feel safe on my block."
One resident said the recent crime wave has left many wondering if Inwood should have its own dedicated precinct. Right now the 34th serves Inwood and Washington Heights, north of 179 Street.
"Everyone knows the precinct is 30 blocks from here," said Park Terrace resident Dave Thom, whose call for a distinct precinct garnered a round of applause from the crowd. "Inwood has long been lumped together with Washington Heights. We are separate from Washington Heights."
Although state Sen. Adriano Espaillat clapped along with the crowd, he stopped short of requesting a separate precinct.
Instead, he demanded the NYPD immediately increase officers in the 34th Precinct, stating that a recent decrease in staffing at the precinct of 50 officers has coincided with the increase in crime.
"While the community will redouble its efforts to do our part, the NYPD must step up its presence," Espaillat said. "Beating back this wave of crime will take a team effort, and I call on the NYPD to work with us in protecting the community."
Buzzetti said he was open to discussing the idea of creating a unique precinct. Back in the 1990s, a spike in crime resulted in splitting the 34th Precinct to add a separate outpost for lower Washington Heights — the 33rd Precinct. But Buzzetti noted the difficulty of doing something like that in the current economic climate.
"I can't promise anything because the police department as a whole is serving the community with tremendously low resources," he said.
City Councilman Robert Jackson, who organized the meeting with Assemblyman Guillermo Linares — who was councilman during the '90s, when the current 34th Precinct was split — also noted skepticism about the possibility of creating a new precinct at this time.
Jackson said the community must now focus on immediate solutions to the crime wave, and bolster community and police relations in the neighborhood.
"We're all extremely concerned about what has been happening in our community," he said. "We must now focus our attention and resources to address challenges in the community, and create stronger collaboration and trust with the community where law enforcement works.
"These are hard times, but we also want Inwood to be safe," he added.