Corona Residents Concerned about Police Anti-Gang Actions

Fabián Rodríguez, a senior at a Corona high school, was stopped by the police, who interrogated him for being an alleged gang member. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Following the infamous shooting on Feb. 3 at the 90th Street station platform in Corona, Queens, in which a suspected gang member from El Salvador killed a presumed member of a rival gang, members of the community have seen an increase in police presence in the area.

While the measure is well received by those who think it makes the neighborhood safer, others are complaining that more youths are being subjected to police harassment in the streets of Corona under the suspicion of gang activity. (…)

Fabián Rodríguez, 18, who has lived in the area since 2017, says that he feels more watched and discriminated against by NYPD patrols. He said that, two weeks ago, he was stopped at a corner on Junction Boulevard by several officers who accused him of being a gang member because of his clothes and the tattoos on his arms.

“It was around 8 p.m. I was with a group of friends, and the officers approached us to ask if we were members of a Corona gang. I told them no, that we had nothing to do with that, and they kept asking what we were doing. Then they frisked us, checked that there was nothing on the ground, asked to see our IDs, and talked on their radio while they kept asking us questions,” said the Colombian youth. “They let us go eventually, but told us they would be watching and not to do anything strange. It’s really bad because they see a group of Latino teenagers and right away they think we are gang members, instead of going after the people who are really committing crimes on the streets. If we were blanquitos (white), they would not have stopped us.”

The Colombian young man, who is a senior at a high school in the area, said that the young people in his neighborhood fear being included on the NYPD’s list of suspected gang members (…).

“I am worried that they will put my name on that list because of the way I dress or the baseball caps I wear. I think schools need to be talking about the fact that this is happening and about the issue of gangs so young people will not end up in those groups, and also to teach us how to handle that topic with the police when they stop us,” added the student, who would like to be an architect but, because of his limited financial resources, will study to be a barber after graduation.

School teacher Catherine Rojas criticizes the increased police presence in Corona and the way they are harassing young men, who are being wrongly labeled as gang members. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

(…) “Our concern is that now the police are harassing youths more often and calling them gang members when they are not,” said Catherine Rojas, history teacher at a Corona school and a member of the group ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). “We are seeing that, in Queens, the levels of violence and crime are not that high and that the shooting was a one-time event. But just because of that incident, they are starting to criminalize our young people, and that will do nothing to stop crimes,” said the community leader.

(…) “We are seeing more police presence and more harassment of people in the community. They are stopping them more often, they are checking their Facebook and Instagram pages, and I am worried that they will start automatically discriminating against the boys just because of the way they look,” said Rojas. “Instead of giving more resources to the community, which is what young people need – to have them invest in education and sports programs, after-school and arts programs, and creating jobs – they are giving the police more resources to increase their surveillance work and, by doing that, hurting the community even more than a gang would.”

Liliana Zaragoza, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), (…) pointed out that, even though this type of action is already being carried out in other communities in the Bronx and Brooklyn, the police are now paying more attention to Corona’s youths.

“At the moment, there is a fear among people in the community that it will be like it was on Long Island, where young people started to be singled out as gang members without proof and put on lists, which can influence prosecutors to judge the youths, as well as create consequences regarding immigration,” said the attorney. “While some people may not be deported immediately or put in deportation processes, you never know if the city and the police are putting young people of color at risk by leaving them on those lists for months and years. Then, when they go to apply for some kind of immigration relief, they are denied because they are labeled as gang members.”

(…) The activist also said that the Department of Education (DOE) needs to have a more active role in protecting students who have been labeled in this manner, adding that last year her organization asked the agency to explain what they are doing about that specific issue.

“We are still waiting for the DOE’s reply to our request to know exactly what kind of information they are giving the police or other agencies. When we receive those answers, we will be able to know exactly what they have done or not done to protect children so they do not end up on lists of alleged gang members,” said Zaragoza. (…)

Anthony Posada, of attorney-led organization Legal Aid Society, explained that the residents’ fear that Corona youths will be unfairly labeled as gang members is so high that a few days ago they held a community board meeting in which parents, community leaders and students expressed their concerns.

(…) “The community must be alarmed and vigilant, turning to us, who are able to find out whether someone is on a list of gang members, and also letting us and elected officials know when violations occur. They need to know that they are not alone, because the truth is we are seeing that, in Corona, we are going back to the era of ‘stop and frisk,’ when police officers would stop youths based on racial stereotypes,” said the lawyer.

Corona Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz said that, while the support of the police is necessary to fight crime in her district, this does not mean that officers are allowed to overdo it.

“Our community is seeing a sad resurgence of gang-related crime and people involved in drug trafficking, but we need to find a balance between the community’s need to feel protected and their right to be respected by the police,” said the political leader.

Strong police presence in the subway station following the February murder. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

(…) Miranda Barbot, deputy press secretary for the Department of Education, said that there is no plan between the police and Corona’s schools to collaborate to identify alleged gang members.

(…) For its part, the NYPD denied that officers are adding names of Corona youths to their suspected criminals database without evidence.

“The NYPD’s criteria to identify a person as a member of a known criminal group are among the most rigorous in the nation,” said Sgt. Jessica McRorie, spokeswoman for the NYPD, referring to their so-called list of suspected gang members. In 2018, it contained some 17,500 names, almost half of them added in 2014. The police say that they have taken around 3,700 of them off the list in the last four years.

(…)

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