The whole idea of community policing – so popular among cable news talking heads these days – involves actually getting involved with the community. A big part of that might be to support the residents in higher crime neighborhoods when they call the cops to ask for help. Sadly, this was not the experience of 67 year old Arles Cepeda in the Bronx, who found herself being arrested after calling the police “too many times” about drug dealers in her building and other unsafe conditions.
She saw something. She said something. And then she got arrested.
A 67-year-old woman who lives in Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx will file a federal lawsuit on Friday, slamming the NYPD for busting her for calling 311 too much. Arles Cepeda called the city hotline 44 times during a stretch of 15 months — and she phoned 911 twice.
Cepeda says she’s no crackpot. She’s just an active resident tired of having to walk by suspected drug dealers in her Seward Ave. building at all hours.
“I kept calling, but no one ever did anything,” Cepeda told the Daily News.
Cepeda moved into the NYCHA property in November 2011. Her complaints to building management fell on deaf ears, she said, and her calls to 311 started shortly thereafter. Most of the calls were complaints about drugs. Others were about excessive noise in the hallways. And a few dealt with broken elevators.
Ms. Cepeda heard a knock at her door one day and a police officer told her that a search had been done in an apartment upstairs from her, that no drugs had been found and that she was under arrest. She was cuffed with her hands behind her back, put in a squad car, tossed in a cell for five hours and then released. Cepeda was given a desk appearance ticket for a court date along with a warning:
“If you continue calling, I’m gonna take you to the pysch unit at Jacobi Hospital,” she recalled him saying. “He was very cruel to me.”
In the final bit of insult added to injury, when Ms. Cepeda showed up for her court date there was no record of her needing to appear. The paperwork was apparently never filed for her hearing, but nobody bothered to tell her.
So was this “excessive calling” on her part? 44 calls in 15 months works out to about three times per month, or less than once a week. Given the neighborhood, that doesn’t seem like an unusual number of times to run into drug dealing or other gang related activity. A look at the history of Castle Hill Houses in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx shows an area which has seen some good news in recent years, with many renovations and community leaders taking a role in trying to clean up the area. But not that long ago, the police described this public housing unit as being in “a no-go zone due to high crime rates.” (Gee… where have we heard that phrase before?)
Let’s also remember that Ms. Cepeda was not calling 911 – except for two instances – but rather the 311 “if you see something, say something” line. This was obviously not abuse of the emergency response system. I have no way of knowing how many of the instances she reported were active incidents of crime, but it’s certainly not a stretch of the imagination to believe that there was plenty of crime to see in those towers.
For this she was arrested, thrown in a cell and given a ticket to appear in court. Surely there was a better way to handle this. Even if the cops felt that she was overreacting and reporting activities which didn’t merit a visit from the cops, stopping by her apartment for a cup of tea and advising her on the types of activity they really want to hear about should have been more than enough. Also, this could have an effect on others who actually want to make their community more safe. Who wants to call the 311 system if one possible result is that you’ll be the one in jail rather than the drug dealers you’re trying to drive out of your housing unit?
I support the cops in the difficult job they do, but instances such as this need to be brought to the attention of the public and the cops should be briefed on how to better handle such things. The police should be saluting people like Arles Cepeda, not arresting them. If you want to clean up the streets, that effort begins with residents who want to do the right thing.