Crackdown on Roosevelt Avenue Bars Questioned

Police respond to a call at a bar on Roosevelt Ave. in Jackson Heights, Queens (Photo by Mallory Moench for Voices of NY)

Police respond to a call at a bar on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens (Photo by Mallory Moench for Voices of NY)

Romano insists he doesn’t frequent El Tucanazo, a bar on Roosevelt Avenue, where customers pay $2 a dance, to take a woman home with him. Instead, the Mexican immigrant who declined to give his last name, visits to drink with friends after an exhausting 15-hour work day.

Inside the bar, he said he feels safe because: “Immigration doesn’t come, police don’t come.”

That might not be true for long. In August, state Sen. José Peralta introduced legislation to crack down on prostitution by targeting establishments he believes are guilty of promoting the crime. Peralta’s bills would beef up police patrols, limit liquor licenses and double fines for dance bars like El Tucanazo which operate without cabaret licenses.

But many Jackson Heights residents debate whether targeting bars will fix the decades-old problem and whether extra policing will make immigrants like Romano feel safer – or more threatened. President-elect Donald Trump’s recent pledge to deport at least 2 million undocumented immigrants heightened fears in the neighborhood, where 73 percent of the population comes from Latin America.

“Deportations are at a record high and people get stressed out when they see police,” said Tania Mattos, 33, founder of the nonprofit organization Queens Neighborhood United. Mattos, who was born in Bolivia, grew up undocumented in the area.

“Peralta saying ‘bring the police in’ is like saying ‘let’s bring in an army.’ For us it’s not going to solve the issue,” she said. “I don’t think hitting the establishments will make a dent.”

Roosevelt Ave. bar advertising female dancers (Photo by Mallory Moench for Voices of NY)

Roosevelt Avenue bar advertising female dancers (Photo by Mallory Moench for Voices of NY)

El Tucanazo manager Raymundo DiaTucanazo, 64, said the legislation would force him to fire half his employees and increased police presence would frighten away undocumented customers. He denied the bar promotes prostitution.

“It doesn’t happen here, because they’re not allowed,” DiaTucanazo said. “Police should go out on the streets, because there is more prostitution on the streets, not in the bars.”

Jay Perez, a 22-year-old customer and father of two, offered a more nuanced view as he spoke inside El Tucanazo. “This place has nothing to do with prostitution,” he said. “But if you see a girl,” Perez shrugged toward the female bartender in a skintight top, “and you offer her $100, and you go out, it’s no problem. It’s not on the bar, it’s on the girl.”

Inspector Michele Irizarry, commanding officer of NYPD’s 115th Precinct, said solicitation largely occurs on the streets. ” If a prostitute meets someone and asks them to go to a certain location, it’s very hard to control. In terms of establishments operating as private brothels, I’m not aware of those,” she said. “We’re taking crime along Roosevelt Avenue very seriously.”

Irizarry reported a drop in crime since the introduction of the Roosevelt Avenue Task Force, a regular patrol of veteran officers, in March 2016 – but Mattos said the force increased fear in her community. According to Mattos, Jackson Heights Cop Watch witnessed a concerning spike in random stops when the program started.

“The police were having a field day,” Mattos said. “They were stopping everyone. It was very scary.”

Eder Castillo said he wished he could walk on Roosevelt Ave. at night without fear (Photo by Mallory Moench for Voices of NY)

Eder Castillo said he wished he could walk on Roosevelt Avenue at night without fear (Photo by Mallory Moench for Voices of NY)

But Peralta, who estimated he receives 300 annual complaints about Roosevelt Avenue, believed the task force didn’t put enough police on the street.

“We need an extra 20 veteran officers to walk up and down – not to bother or profile or intimidate – but so that people can feel safe,” Peralta said.

The senator plans to meet with Police Commissioner James O’Neill to discuss introducing a program similar to Operation Impact, which imbedded beat cops in high crime neighborhoods. Former Commissioner Bill Bratton discontinued the program in 2015 because he said it isolated rookie officers and overutilized stop-and-frisk.

Not all community members protested the patrols, though. Eder Castillo, 25, who goes out to Roosevelt Avenue’s bars every Friday, said he feels safer because of the police.

“Crime has died down. There’s more awareness and surveillance of police,” Castillo said, although he agreed violence was still a problem. “There should be a change in security. I would like to be able to walk down the street at 2 a.m. with my friend or with my sister, and not to think I’ll get mugged.”

Some locals like Jay Perez, who said he’s been robbed multiple times, once at gunpoint, outside bars like El Tucanazo, doubted whether change was possible.

“Roosevelt Avenue is like the mafia. It’s going to be really hard to change,” Perez said. “Even the police can’t try to stop them.”

Mattos, as a leader in her community, hasn’t lost hope, but believes change is only possible from within. “Policing is one but not the only answer,” she said. “For there to be lasting change, the community needs to come together.”

Mallory Moench is a member of the 2017 class of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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  1. Pingback: Cuestionan la represión de los bares de la Avenida Roosevelt, en Queens | Tribuna Hispana USA

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