Newburgh: Some would welcome FBI, others resent city's violent image

A Newburgh city police vehicle. (June 18, 2012) A Newburgh city police vehicle. (June 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Leslie Barbaro

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Where Sen. Charles Schumer saw opportunity, Michael Gabor saw red.

On May 3, two days after three people were gunned down in Newburgh, Schumer scheduled a news conference, stepped up to a podium outside City Hall, and called for the FBI to move its regional office to the five-square-mile riverfront city, framing the move as a solution to Newburgh's long-running battle with gangs, drugs and violence.

Gabor, who owns Newburgh Art Supply on Grand Street and has called the city home for 24 years, said he was infuriated.

"Where's Schumer when we need to invest in business? Where is Schumer when we need to market the city?" Gabor asked. "It's, 'Oh my God, there's a murder and we need to come here and make a show of it.'"

Gabor said one of the victims -- 52-year-old Travis Blue -- was a longtime neighbor and friend. But after a monthlong stretch that included four murders, Schumer's news conference, and a federal judge's infamous remarks calling Newburgh "the most pathetic place in the state of New York," Gabor and like-minded people say Newburgh's problems will never be solved if political leaders continue to frame the problem only in terms of crime. While some, like Gabor, say the city needs more money for police officers instead of borrowed federal agents, others say they support any effort to bring more law enforcement to Newburgh.

"The more eyes that are on Newburgh, the better," said Cher Vick, a master's student in urban planning who maintains a blog called Newburgh Restoration.

"Instead of Newburgh being a place that's just a problem for the FBI, instead it's going to be a place (agents are) driving through every day to go to work, a place where they're ordering lunch or going to a bar after work," Vick said of Schumer's proposal, which was revived this month after the FBI briefly considered the move in 2010.

Schumer did not return numerous calls from Newsday seeking comment.

FOCUSED ON INCREASED ENFORCEMENT

When the idea of moving the office was first floated three years ago, after Schumer caught wind of internal discussions between the FBI and the General Services Administration -- the federal agency that handles basic services like office space -- Newburgh city leaders said they'd welcome the feds by providing free office space. That space, in the old Newburgh courthouse on 123 Grand St., is still available, Mayor Judy Kennedy said.

"In so many ways, their presence just in the area would make this location an undesirable spot for, shall we say, a certain type of business," Kennedy said.

Newburgh, which has fewer than 80 police officers for its approximately 29,000 residents, recently welcomed four rookies to the department and has budgeted for two more, Kennedy said. Last year was an especially difficult one for the department. After police shot and killed 22-year-old Michael Lembhard during a chase on March 7, 2012, the months that followed were marked by a series of riots, from an angry public marching on City Hall days after Lembhard's death, to an August riot in which a crowd of more than 100 lit a bonfire, refused to let firefighters approach, and fought off responding police. Four officers were hospitalized after they were hit with bricks and rocks, and Newburgh Police Chief Michael Ferrara said at the time that his officers were outnumbered 15 to one.

The cash-strapped city paid for the four new officers by going "through every line item," slashing things like office supplies and laying off several city employees, Kennedy said.

FBI FOCUS ON NEWBURGH

advertisement | advertise on newsday

FBI spokesman James Margolin declined to comment on whether the agency is considering moving its regional office, and said the GSA would make decisions with input from the FBI. But he said agents who head the Hudson Valley Safe Streets Task Force -- the unit responsible for gang takedowns in recent years -- are focused on Newburgh from their current location in Goshen, about 25 miles west.

"If you look at even just the last four or five years, the history of investigations and prosecutions that center around violent crime activity in Newburgh, there have been significant inroads made by the FBI and U.S. attorney's office," Margolin said. "Wherever a new facility is located, the work of the Hudson Valley Safe Streets Task Force will continue to be focused on wherever the crime problem is greatest and that would include, at present, activity in Newburgh."

The FBI-led task force combines the resources and jurisdictional power of the federal government with the local, institutional knowledge of municipal agencies, counting officers from Newburgh, Middletown, Poughkeepsie and Beacon among its ranks, as well as sheriff's deputies and state troopers. The task force works closely with federal prosecutors, and was the lead unit in the large-scale gang takedowns in Newburgh over the last few years, including several raids involving hundreds of police executing dawn search warrants on gangs like the Bloods and Latin Kings.

Schumer, Kennedy and some community leaders in Newburgh say a permanent FBI presence would work as a deterrent to gang leaders and drug dealers who have brazenly run open-air drug markets and fought for turf on the city's streets. Competition among cities seeking to host an FBI field office is not uncommon, but in most cases it's for economic reasons, with the GSA working with local chambers of commerce or economic development corporations. In recent years, the FBI has opened or relocated field offices in Portland, Ore., Chesapeake, Va., and Chelsea, Mass., with local mayors touting the hundreds of jobs and economic boost that comes with playing host to the agency.

TAKING BACK THE CITY

Others, like Gabor, say revitalization happens at the granular level -- reclaiming blighted buildings, repopulating abandoned neighborhoods, rehabilitating the city's image, and re-establishing the once-thriving downtown. Echoing former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's philosophy on quality-of-life improvements creating a ripple effect, they say criminals are more likely to retreat from bustling shopping districts and blocks where people take pride in their homes than they would be knowing a handful of federal agents are in town.

"These are not smart people," Gabor said of the city's drug dealers and gang members. "They're not thinking of the repercussions if they get caught."

Hannah Brooks, a surgeon at St. Luke's Cornwall Hospital in Newburgh, said she welcomes a federal presence in the city, but said she also realizes "it's not going to solve every problem."

Like others who live in Newburgh, Brooks said she sees another side of the city that often isn't communicated to people who live elsewhere. Several people said they worry that, despite the efforts of community groups and nonprofits, people are afraid to visit the city because of what they see and read about it. Likewise, they say business owners who take a chance on Newburgh -- or see potential in its riverfront real estate -- are hampered by public perception and a failure by the city to market itself.

"If you have a community garden opening, obviously that's not going to get as much attention as a judge saying something like that," Vick said. "Unfortunately what she said just ruined what a lot of people are working so hard for ... It's very hard to wipe that perception out of your mind."

Bringing in the FBI might help the city address some of its problems so leaders can focus on things like economic development, said Brooks, who moved full-time to Newburgh in 2009 and owns a home in the city.

"We do have the crime problem, and we appreciate any help we can get," Brooks said. "But I don't expect that government is going to solve our problem. It has to happen organically."

You also may be interested in: