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Gun violence has prompted the New York Police Department to amp up its patrols in and around Morningside Park, but recent shootings still have some parents rattled. Dave Ehrenberg, 26th Precinct captain, said his officers have increased enforcement in Morningside Park since two shootings this June—including one in which a 16-year-old boy was shot in the face on a park basketball court—but parents are still anxious, especially because most of the incidents have happened in places like playgrounds or basketball courts that are designated for children. Most recently, shots were fired on Nov. 21 at 119th Street off of Morningside Avenue—half a block from a public K-8 school—and on Oct. 26, in a playground in the northeast corner of the park. Local concerns Mekia Denby was walking her four-year-old daughter home along 119th Street last Monday when the shooting happened. "We were literally in the middle of the block," she said. "We had passed where the shots were seconds before." Denby said she was startled by the shots, not only because it happened across from the park and a school, but also because it was about 4:15 p.m. "I didn't know what they were. But I literally picked my kid up and my bike and ran to Frederick Douglass [Boulevard]," she said. At the Children's Learning Center, a Columbia-affiliated nursery school on La Salle Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, director Renee Bock has stopped taking students to Morningside Park for recess. After she heard about the Oct. 26 incident in the playground where she used to take students, Bock said she asked herself, "'Would I bring my own children to the park if that kind of an incident happened?' And I knew in my gut I would not do that." "A lot of parents are getting increasingly concerned about the climate in the neighborhood," she said. It showed. Nearly 20 families with children who attend CLC went to the monthly meeting of the 26th Precinct Community Council on Tuesday. When Denby, whose daughter attends CLC, told Bock about the Nov. 21 shooting, Bock said she thought, "'Another shooting? And this time one of our families was present?' We have to get some answers about whether there's a pattern." Ehrenberg, acknowledging that the large turnout was due to parents looking to hear about the NYPD's efforts in Morningside Park, said, "We do have a little problem there." During the meeting, a CLC parent asked Ehrenberg, "Should I be allowing my sitter to take my kid there?" Ehrenberg paused before answering, "My honest opinion is it's safe but I understand your concern." More resources Although the 26th and 28th police precincts are divided by Morningside Avenue—meaning that crimes in Morningside Park are technically the responsibility of the 26th, and crimes east of the park fall to the 28th—officers at the precinct meeting said that the 26th and 28th precincts have joined forces to prevent crime in the area. "We don't want people to think there's a fine line between the two," Ehrenberg said. He stressed that the two precincts have the resources in place to stop the violence. There is always at least one cop in the park from 2 p.m. until 7 a.m., Ehrenberg said, not including other resources, such as officers in patrol cars nearby. The precinct has deployed a number of plainclothes officers to patrol the park as well, and while Ehrenberg said he was not able to disclose how many, he said these officers have made a "significant amount of arrests" since they were assigned there. Recalling violence in the park in 2003, Jonathan Kahn, a CLC parent, said that back then, "The 26th and the 28th precincts were not coordinated like this. He [Ehrenberg] seems like he's got the resources in place." Columbia security cameras along Morningside Drive have helped deter crime and identify suspects in the past, 26th Precinct Community Affairs Officer Jason Harper said. The nonprofit Friends of Morningside Park increased its fundraising efforts since the summer, raising $10,000 that members plan to spend on one new video camera in the park, said Brad Taylor, former Friends president and current treasurer. Columbia also funds Morningside Park's one Parks Enforcement Patrol officer—a Parks Department employee who primarily oversees quality-of-life issues like dogs without leashes and public urination. Taylor said the presence of PEPs also helps deter crime, but one officer for the 30-acre park isn't enough. "In a park like Morningside that has many areas inaccessible to vehicles, foot patrols are a much needed part of the security mix," Taylor said in an email. Next steps Police made an arrest in the Oct. 26 incident, but because the only witness was the victim, Ehrenberg said the suspect was charged with menacing and criminal possession of a weapon instead of a higher charge, such as attempted assault. "We weren't able to put a gun in his hand," he said, adding that the gun was never recovered, though shell casings were. The suspect is already out of custody, but Ehrenberg said that officers are keeping tabs on him. The two precincts are still looking for video that could pinpoint a suspect in the Nov. 21 shooting, because 911 calls haven't resulted in many leads, Ehrenberg said. While the first shooting this June "erupted over a previous dispute between two individuals where one kid heard the other was going after him," according to Ehrenberg, detectives are still not sure of the causes of the more recent shootings. "I think it's the broken window effect. Somebody gets away with it, so somebody else thinks they can get away with it," Greg Routt, communication secretary of the 26th Precinct Community Council, said. After the meeting, parents said they were reassured that the NYPD had adequate resources to address the crime, but many said there is more that can be done. "It sounds like they're doing a hell of a job with what they have, and I am so happy and supportive for that," Denby said. "As much as we put our trust in our police, there are still things we can do. If we can find some ways to work with law enforcement to continue to make our neighborhood safer, I'm willing." Denby said that better publicizing of some of the youth initiatives run by the police—such as the Explorers program, which introduces kids to careers in law enforcement—could be one step. "Could we educate the kids at a younger age about gun violence?" she asked. "Could we tap into them when they're very young, so that when they're 12, they don't think that that's acceptable?" Ehrenberg said he does not believe that there's a connection between Morningside Park activity and violence at the Grant Houses or that any gangs or youth crews are involved. Regardless, he said, the gang unit of the precinct is involved in the investigations. Xanthe Jory, a mother at CLC who lives at 119th and Morningside, said her concern was that the violence was increasing. "When one shot happens, it's easy to say it's an anomaly. When a second happens, you can say it's an anomaly. But by the time it's the fifth shot, it's hard to write it off," she said. "Our kids were using that playground every day. Of course we all got concerned." Shayna Orens contributed reporting. finn.vigeland@columbiaspectator.com

Morningside Park crime
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