Near Police Killings, A Community With A Cycle Of Crime

Dec 23, 2014
Originally published on December 23, 2014 6:26 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The officers killed Saturday were sitting in a squad car across from the Tompkins Houses, one of New York's many housing projects. The officers were part of a detail to respond to what police say was an increase in crime at the development. We're going to meet a man now who once lived there. He says young people at Tompkins sometimes resort to crime because they think life has little else to offer them. And as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, he is trying to change that attitude.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Weeks before the shootings, I went to the Tompkins Houses to interview former resident Ephraim Benton. He's a 36-year-old actor who grew up there. And he's now trying to show younger residents that there's more to life than gangs and drugs and guns. He says there aren't always a lot of positive role models.

EPHRAIM BENTON: Mostly the mentors in here are the local drug dealers or gangsters. And that's where the kids growing up tend to look up to.

FESSLER: He knows because he was one of those kids before he got a second chance, which involved acting school and the start of a career. He's had roles in movies such as "Precious" and TV shows such as "Law & Order." And before long, Benton noticed that when he visited Tompkins he was kind of a star.

BENTON: Every time I come back and the kids would be like, oh, I saw you on this, and the parents - keep doing what you're doing. It's a great feeling. And I wish more people can experience that. And that's what I'm trying to, you know, show people the light.

FESSLER: So in recent years, Benton has organized programs like an outdoor summer movie series and Daddy Children's Day in Brooklyn, a family festival celebrating fatherhood. He is also one of the subjects of an exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society highlighting the achievements of public housing residents. It's intended to counter negative stereotypes to show that lots of people here work hard.

BENTON: I got the tickets - December 5.

FESSLER: As we talk, Benton calls out to a young man who walks by. He says he promised to take some local youths to a basketball game. Almost 3,000 people live in this complex in eight tall, brick buildings. Near us, some teens shoot baskets while several young boys play touch football on a grassy area just yards from where the officers were shot. Still, Benton says there isn't a lot here to keep kids occupied and out of trouble, that it's a vicious cycle.

BENTON: The more they get into trouble then the more prisons could be filled up and the more paying cops' salaries and, you know, more cops being around.

FESSLER: And indeed, the police presence here is very strong. Sirens blare repeatedly. And as we leave, Benton comments that we could have been hassled by the local cops - three adults sitting without kids in a playground.

Also with us is Rico Washington, who organized the exhibit at the Historical Society. After this past weekend's shootings, we spoke by phone. Washington worries that the killings will aggravate tensions in the area even though the shooter had nothing to do with the Tompkins Houses.

RICO WASHINGTON: That's very unfortunate that it happened right next to the community where there are a lot of people who are doing wonderful, great things. And I think all it does is it further compounds that stigma and that stereotype of public housing.

FESSLER: Which he worries will only add to the problem of kids feeling pessimistic about their future. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.