Making Mount Vernon safer key to revitalization, councilman says
Yellow crime scene tape cordoned off Beekman Avenue on Dec. 4 as Mount Vernon police descended upon the basement apartment of Lucius Crawford where 41-year-old Tanya Simmons was found stabbed to death.
An African-American man in blue sweats casually walked around the tape and approached police.
There were a couple of, "Hey, buddy, where do you think you're going?" comments from the assembled crowd. Richard Thomas ignored them. When he spotted a uniformed officer who recognized him, he was given the gruesome details involving Crawford, a suspected serial killer.
The 30-year-old city councilman and former head of the council's Public Safety Committee had rushed to the Beekman Avenue crime scene from the hospital where his wife, Cherish Celetti, gave birth to their first child -- a son.
For Thomas, that day encapsulated his life in Mount Vernon -- joy and sorrow within a couple miles and minutes of each other.
As he transitions from his public safety perch to a spot on the Finance Committee after a year in the job, he notes that the positions are intertwined: Tackling crime is key to improving the city's financial problems.
"The number one issue in Mount Vernon is safety. We had a double-digit homicide rate" in 2012, with a total of 10 murders, two more than in the past two years combined, Thomas noted recently during an interview at the Sugar Bowl Luncheonette.
"People don't feel safe... We have simply got to get a handle on crime," said Thomas, who grew up in the 4.4-square-mile city and plans to raise his children there. "The old solutions, the old approaches advocated by the same people who were running things when I was in high school here -- they're not working."
And he thinks Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis, who has been at the helm of the city on and off for more than a decade, is on the wrong track.
"I don't see anything on the table that is going to help us solve this problem," he said.
Thomas faults Davis for underfunding the police department and for exerting too much control over the daily operations of the force.
"When you have the leadership meddling in the management of the police department how can they do their work?" Thomas asked. "The mayor is not a police officer."
Davis, who declined to voice support for Police Commisioner Carl Bell, insisted that you don't need to have a law enforcement background to run the force.
"I could run that department," he told Newsday in a recent interview.
City Council President Yuhanna Edwards disagreed.
"He should leave policy to the professionals," said Edwards, who also is a member of the council's Public Safety Committee. Roberta Apuzzo, who replaced Thomas in January as head of the Public Safety Committee, did not return numerous calls seeking comment about her plans for combating crime.
Davis said he intends to oversee the retraining of officers to improve their interaction with Mount Vernon's community -- which with a population of 67,000 makes it the 11th-most densely populated city in the country, according to federal statistics.
The mayor also said he is developing a major crimes squad to tackle homicides and shootings in the city, faced with a proliferation of guns, drugs and gangs. In addition to the 10 murders in 2012, there were 20 shootings in the city.
Thomas said Bell, who was appointed in 2011 by Davis' predecessor, Clinton Young, "has done the best job he can under the circumstances," including improving relations among police and citizens.
Bell declined to comment on Davis' refusal to support him, saying he and the mayor have "a good professional relationship.
"I think I've done a good job. I'm proud that Mount Vernon is no longer on the list of 100 most dangerous cities in America," he added.
Thomas argues that the police department needs more technology.
"We need to use simple things like Twitter and crowdsourcing apps to help the community reach out anonymously to help solve crime," he explained.
Bell countered that no amount of technology is going to help when most of the crimes involve people who know each other yet refuse to cooperate with police.
"If they're not going to speak up, it's going to be tough to solve the crimes ... It's the culture of the community that has to change," he said.
Brian Ross, 46, who works for the city's Department of Public Works, knows firsthand how that wall of silence can stymie police. Last April, his 24-year-old nephew Toney Ellis was fatally shot by a 17-year-old man on the corner of South Fifth and Franklin avenues.
"It's frustrating because it hit my sister so hard, losing her son. And everybody knew who this kid (the shooter) was," he lamented. "It used to be you settled these things with fists. But, now, someone who can't handle a (beating) gets a gun."
The violence not only prevents residents from believing there's a better life possible in Mount Vernon, it discourages businesses from investing in the city -- and reviving its economic engine is the best deterrent to crime, said Thomas, who works as director of the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, a group that advocates for upgrading the state's electrical infrastructure.
A working class city hurt by the loss of manufacturing jobs, Mount Vernon has a 9.2 percent unemployment rate, much higher than Westchester's 6.7 percent.
"Would you bring a business to a city where the perception is crime is out of control and they can't even fix the pot holes and cracks in the street?" he asked, pointing to the pockmarked South Fifth Avenue outside the luncheonette.
An economic study conducted late last year by HR&A Consultants said there is $205 million in untapped spending potential within the city, but the perception of a crime problem and a 27 percent vacancy rate among downtown storefronts, hamstrings the city's efforts at economic revitalization, the study said.
"Economic opportunity for our youth -- and Mount Vernon is a young city -- is itself a crime-fighting program," Thomas said. More than a third of Mount Vernon's population is 44 or younger. "That allows those companies to reinvest in their businesses and that's what's needed in this city."