CROWN HEIGHTS — It’s been nearly nine months since Vertina Brown’s daughter, 22-year-old Tiarah Poyau, was shot and killed while celebrating J’Ouvert in Crown Heights.
In that time, Brown has heard many ideas from elected officials and residents about how to stop the violence at the pre-dawn Labor Day celebration and parade. But she has seen “no progress,” she told DNAinfo New York — and is unsure if the event will ever truly be safe.
“It’s been almost a year and I haven’t seen nothing,” she said after a town hall meeting Thursday night addressing public safety at J’Ouvert, a Caribbean celebration where fatal shootings have marred the event three years in a row.
Brown wasn’t alone at the meeting. A nephew of Carey Gabay, the 42-year-old aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo shot and killed while celebrating J’Ouvert in 2015, also spoke, saying he came to hear ideas about improving safety at the event. But he said he had his doubts.
“Honestly, my family, we feel like — is there a possible way to actually make J'Ouvert safer?” he asked.
There was no clear answer to the question from those who organized the meeting, or from longtime residents who came to vent their frustrations about the annual event one homeowner said leaves her feeling like “a prisoner in my house.”
“I’m afraid to go out,” said Sheeree Runner, who lives on Linden Boulevard in East Flatbush and dreads the weekend-long festivities leading up to carnival, held on Labor Day.
“I’m all for culture celebration, but it shouldn’t have to be like this,” she said.
NYPD Assistant Chief Steven Powers, who oversees the Brooklyn South command, reminded attendees how difficult it is to police the celebration, which consists of a lot more than the floats and steel pan drumming groups who walk in the parade on Empire Boulevard where Poyau and 17-year-old Tyreke Borel were killed last year.
“The reality is, J’Ouvert is a very multi-faceted event. There’s barbecues, there’s house parties, there’s thousands upon thousands of people on the street. There’s clubs,” he said, likening it to if “New Year’s Eve occurred in the middle of summer.”
He did emphasize, however, that the NYPD doubled its presence at the parade last year, bringing 3,200 officers out to the area near the parade route, up from approximately 1,700 officers in 2015. The department also had 250 light towers in the area, a huge increase from previous years, he said.
“And we’re going to do that again,” he said.
Assemblyman Walter Mosley, one of the hosts of the town hall, had previously called for J’Ouvert to be canceled soon after 2016’s double shooting. But he and the other elected officials at the meeting — Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, State Sen. Jesse Hamilton and District Leader Geoffrey Davis — did not suggest canceling the event as a solution, instead opening up the floor for suggestions to pull it off safely.
“We’re not looking to make drastic changes, but what we’re looking for is drastic results,” he said.
Hamilton said the community must “find a balance” between celebration and public safety.
“J’Ouvert is part of the Caribbean culture and to cut it out completely — I have a problem with that. But I think it can be done in such a way that it can celebrate our cultural diversity and also have a peaceful event,” he said.
For Brown, that means educating young people about gun violence, making sure there’s enough lighting and keeping pressure on the NYPD to increase enforcement during the event, she told attendees of the town hall.
But she remained skeptical.
“Violence is everywhere,” she said to the audience of several dozen people. “This may never be a safe event. May never. May never. But who knows, 100 years from now ... it does start now and it starts with educating.”