This piece was published in our Perspectives section. Kraig Lewis is a community organizer, educator, and advocate with the GANGS Coalition, a grassroots organization that works to end the harms of so-called gang policing while promoting alternatives and providing support.
I spent April 25, 2016 studying for a statistics final as a student in the University of Bridgeport’s MBA program. I was nine credits away from graduation. I already had my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and planned to eventually run my own criminal defense firm in my hometown — the Bronx, New York. But in the early morning hours of April 26, I was arrested by a SWAT team in front of my son as part of a coordinated raid by the NYPD, ATF and DEA. Preet Bharara, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that it was “the largest gang takedown in New York City history.”
News crews had been alerted, and dozens of young men like me were perp-walked past cameras. What Bharara did not mention in his announcement was that his office had utilized a law originally intended to take down the mob in a raid that swept up exclusively Black and brown New Yorkers from the Bronx, at least half of whom had been falsely labeled as members of the targeted gangs. Neither did Bharara mention that many of the cases were brought primarily for marijuana sale.
Under threat of harsh sentences, many of us were coerced into guilty pleas to escape incarceration. I spent 22 months in pre-trial federal detention in the Manhattan Detention Complex, despite the government offering no proof of criminal conduct outside of my social network and involvement in the music scene.
When I was offered a plea that freed me, I took it. I’m now a community organizer and an advocate. There is a mural of my image on 168th Street in the Bronx in recognition of my cure-violence work in the neighborhood. But the destabilizing effects of the raid — and my permanent felony record — remain.
The Bronx 120 raid, as it has been dubbed for the number of people it ensnared, has been criticized for its use of massive federal, city, and state resources to criminalize and traumatize young people and their families without advancing public safety for anyone. But Bharara has never apologized for his role in the mass arrests, and the raid’s central premise — that public safety can be achieved by rounding up and incarcerating young people like me and labeling us for life — is still mostly unquestioned by both Democratic and Republican politicians.
In 2022, this principle remains at the heart of policy preferences and recommendations from elected officials like Joe Biden and Eric Adams. When the two met recently in New York to discuss public safety and gun violence, it may have been less than obvious to an outside observer that federal and state collaboration remains as robust as ever.
The meeting between Adams and Biden took place at NYPD Headquarters, where Adams, Biden, and police officials trumpeted federal prosecutions and ever-increasing police funding as novel solutions to violence — as though both have not been the status quo for decades. Adams had primed for the meeting by releasing a “Gun Violence Prevention Plan” calling for enhanced police powers that painted a false image of an under-punitive system in New York in need of federal involvement. And he found a friendly audience in the author of the 1994 Crime Bill.
“I am confident that if we fund these programs we’ll see a reduction in violence,” said Biden, referring to previously implemented collaborations with the ATF, the FBI, and other policing initiatives.
Federal Collaboration with the NYPD
In truth, these systems have been fully operational (and fully funded) for decades — responsible for the Obama-era policies that led to the Bronx 120 raid, the Trump-era policies that ramped up existing federal gun prosecutions, and the policies of mass incarceration that predated both administrations and continue to this day.
But none of these policies have made us safer. We are the world’s leading jailer; if we could incarcerate our way to public safety, we would be there by now. These policies also pose particular risk for those deemed “gang-affiliated” by the NYPD, which uses a dubious, racist, and opaque process to catalog individuals as young as 12 in the department’s “Gang” Database.
Federal partnerships targeting this demographic are alive and well in programs like Operation Ceasefire. This program, a joint venture with the NYPD, state and local prosecutors, and multiple federal agencies including the FBI and ATF, operates under the guise of violence interruption while subjecting “at-risk” — that is, gang-labeled — people to non-consensual home visits, intelligence gathering, forced snitching, surveillance, and threatening letters about their social associations.
The NYPD has also engaged in partnerships with DHS’s Homeland Security Investigations, putting young people at risk of deportation based on police-determined “gang affiliation” alone.
Adams and Biden touted the creation of “new” policing units — which can collaborate with and feed information to federal prosecutors and agencies, as the NYPD does routinely — while omitting critical context.
Adams pointed to Brooklyn’s Gun Violence Suppression Division (GVSD) as the inspiration for his signature plan to reestablish and rebrand the NYPD’s notoriously abusive and deadly plainclothes Anti-Crime Unit as “Neighborhood Safety Teams.” But GVSD is not new; it’s been building questionable gang cases for years. And the NYPD’s plainclothes Anti-Crime Unit was itself only a rebrand of the Street Crime Unit, which in turn was notorious for abusive practices in the 1990s — particularly after SCU officers murdered Amadou Diallo. Every iteration has targeted Black and brown people for harassment and abuse.
Likewise, the Mayor’s vow to “fight crime with targeted, precision policing that removes guns from our streets,” echoed by the President with promises of additional funding, belies the truth that “precision policing” is not new. It’s just the latest buzzword for devastating federal and state raids and sweeping prosecutions that have never stopped.
Federal and State Gun Prosecutions
Prosecutors regularly bring both federal and state-level charges for gang conspiracies, both of which can carry life sentences (and yes, these raids are still replete with perp walks for kids). Federal gun prosecutions in New York disproportionately target non-white people and are particularly punitive for children, according to data collected by the Federal Defenders of New York.
Meanwhile, New York State itself already has some of the harshest gun laws in the nation, particularly in New York City. Prosecutors charge possession of a loaded firearm — with no allegation that the gun was fired, brandished, or used in any way — as a violent felony that carries a 3.5 year minimum prison sentence. Despite Adams’s claims about Raise the Age legislation, and contrary to recommendations based on the science of brain development, 16-year-olds with gun charges can be prosecuted as adults. But like guilt-by-association policies, possession-side gun enforcement fails to address violence while providing license for police to run roughshod over the rights of New York’s Black and brown civilians.
This overly punitive approach to gun possession also leads to disproportionate numbers of Black and brown New Yorkers being sent to jail; 94% of people incarcerated in NYC today for simple gun possession are non-white, with this charge constituting a primary driver of the population in our city’s deadly jails. Biden’s insistence that this race-based disarmament “does not violate anybody’s Second Amendment rights” still does not make incarceration an effective response to gun violence, and the emphasis on punitive responses fails to honor the experiences of New Yorkers who both live in legitimate fear of harm and are targeted by police.
Investing in Communities
While the terms “gang member” or “driver of crime” have generally replaced “superpredator,” the 90s-era attitudes about punishment and race that gave rise to the Crime Bill persist in courtrooms where prosecutors use these labels while seeking harsh prison sentences. They were also on full display at NYPD HQ during the meeting between the Mayor and the President. Their meeting was a stark reminder that we are in the midst of yet another cyclical update to outdated language with no substantive change to the underlying policies that have devastated communities for decades.
Although both Biden and Adams offered nods to violence interrupters and the Crisis Management System, their support extends mostly to proposals that require buy-in and participation from police — necessarily excluding people who are rightfully wary of the NYPD and who are also most in need of support. Token inclusion of violence interruption programs just sets up those programs for blame when policing inevitably fails to ensure safety.
We should be investing in our communities, not in incarceration, policing, and omnipresent surveillance systems like Palantir and ShotSpotter. Officials like Biden and Adams could listen to experts such as members of the GANGS Coalition, many of whom have spent years implementing community solutions to violence with demonstrated efficacy.
Instead, they have doubled down on failed policies with astounding incuriosity for new information. New York already spends more on policing per person than any other city, according to the Center for Popular Democracy. If something doesn’t give, the NYPD and its federal partners will continue to devour massive resources building cases against reputed gang members, often children, who they will surveil for years before arresting them and sending them to Rikers Island and other city jails, to state and federal prisons upstate and sometimes even to their deaths.
Biden, Adams, and other supporters of expansive police powers want us to believe that violence remains an issue because the criminal punishment system is under-empowered to address it. The truth is that the system is as powerful as ever and it will never create safety, no matter how much we invest in criminalization. We demand better, because we know young people deserve more than being scapegoated for failed public policies.
New Yorkers deserve true public safety. And everyone deserves more than I got.