Bronx Neighborhood Hopes Peace Will Persist After Police Move Out

An NYPD Mobile Command Center provides 24-hour surveillance between Al Tawba mosque and Butler Houses on Webster Ave. in Claremont Village.

An NYPD Mobile Command Center provides 24-hour surveillance between Al Tawba mosque and Butler Houses on Webster Avenue in Claremont Village.

BY KATIE MOISSE

After a string of violent attacks on Muslim West Africans in the Bronx’s Claremont Village, the New York Police Department stepped up to deliver peace for Ramadan.  But now that the Islamic holy month has come to an end, some residents say they fear that the peace will, too.

The most notable incident involved an assault on four men on June 28 as they left the Al Tawba mosque after morning prayer – many of them to return home to Butler Houses, a New York City Housing Authority-owned apartment complex across Webster Avenue.  Police are investigating the attack as a hate crime but have made no arrests.

Mahamadou Soukouna, an Al Tawba worshipper and Butler resident said the situation had improved since July.

“Nothing happens with the police car outside,” Soukouna said, referring to an NYPD Mobile Command Center that has been parked in the neighborhood for six weeks. “But when it’s gone…” He shook his head.

Members of the Muslim West African community aren’t the only ones concerned.

“The attacks show that violence against Muslims is a serious and ongoing problem,” said Jim Fairbanks, a spokesperson for District 16 Council Member Helen Foster.  While Fairbanks said he’s glad the police responded to increase safety for Ramadan, he hopes that efforts to keep the peace persist.

The Bronx neighborhoods of Highbridge, Morrisania, Morris Heights and Tremont are home to more than 3,800 West African immigrants – one of the largest concentrations in the city. Those same neighborhoods have been plagued by violence. They accounted for one-fifth of all murders and serious assaults in the Bronx in 2009, police statistics show.

A direct link between the demographics and the statistics is unlikely though, police said.  An officer assigned to the command center said the area’s crime is mainly opportunistic, and that Muslim West Africans are easy targets because they often walk between Butler Houses and Al Tawba during off-peak hours.

Butler Houses, a complex of six, 21-story buildings housing thousands of residents, is a development with a bad history, according to Deputy Inspector Peter Bartoszek, commanding officer of the NYPD Housing Bureau’s Police Service Area 7.  Despite the installation of closed-circuit television cameras between 2004 and 2007, the area surrounding the projects remains a hotbed for crime.

Since July 1, Bartoszek said, the housing police have increased their presence around Butler Houses and Al Tawba at night, with as many as 20 officers patrolling on foot or in squad cars.

On Aug. 27, in an effort to ramp up safety following the attacks, the NYPD conducted a 24-hour sweep of Butler Houses, which resulted in 11 arrests, including two known drug dealers and one man wanted for robbery.

The next day, the NYPD’s Mobile Command Center arrived on Webster Avenue, and it’s been there ever since. Bartoszek said it would be there until the housing bureau decides it’s needed elsewhere – but insisted that Butler Houses is a priority for now.

While most of the crimes in the area are muggings, Bartoszek said the June 28 attack on four Muslim West Africans leaving Al Tawba is still under investigation by the NYPD hate crimes task force.

The attack occurred after an early morning prayer, when few non-Muslims would be on Webster Ave.

“Based on when the attacks happened, and what [the attackers] did and said, it looked like they were targeted,” said Bourema Niambele, a community leader from Mali.

The incident terrified the community.  “People were traumatized,” Niambele said.  “They wouldn’t even go to mosque to do their duty of prayer.”

For now, the NYPD is glad its presence is making a difference and is happy to stay put.  “We want to believe they’re doing better over there,” Bartoszek said, “and we’re going to continue to work over there.”

For how long remains unknown.  Muslim West Africans, like Niambele, acknowledge that the police, and their sense of protection, won’t stay forever.  But once the 24-hour surveillance is gone, Niambele says they’re ready to look out for themselves and for each other.

“We have an obligation to live together, ” Niambele said, “We will solve this as community.”

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