In June 2014, 500 NYPD officers, watched over by helicopters and led personally by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, raided apartments throughout the Grant and Manhattanville high-rise developments in West Harlem and arrested 40 young men and boys on a 103-person indictment for gang activity associated with two murders.
At a press conference announcing the operation, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. laid out his vision of a neighborhood "terrorized" by rival gangs and the role of police and prosecution in ending the cycle of violence.
"The deadly and dangerous feud between the Manhattanville and Grant Houses dates back decades," said Vance. Vance's second-in-command, Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Friedman Agnifilo, recently told me that the purpose of the sweep was "taking it out at the root, not just picking off the leaves."
Two years later, resident and longtime community activist Derrick Haynes says the sweep of Grant and Manhattanville has had the opposite effect, skimming a layer off the top of the gangs and opening a vacuum for the next generation to fill. "I see younger kids stepping up," he says, "who may not have jumped in if the other guys hadn't been snatched."
There are some tangible positive effects: the sweep did reduce violence in the neighborhood. Young men arrested during the raid say there are far fewer guns in the area than there were before the sweep, and that no one sells marijuana or crack on the corners anymore. Vance's office mapped homicides and non-fatal shootings around the two housing projects for the four years before the raid and the two years since; murders have dropped from ten in four years to one in two, and shootings have declined 34 percent.
But some weekdays after school lets out, new groups of boys, typically 12 to 14 years old, still gather at either end of the small stretch of Old Broadway that runs between the towering housing projects to posture at each other and to throw rocks and bottles. According to Haynes, these are the precursors of more serious violence. Even the gang names have remained; the new generation from Grant still calls itself 3 Staccs, and the kids from Manhattanville are still Money Avenue or the Make It Happen Boys. "It's all the same," Haynes says.
But for many of the 103 young people who were indicted, especially those who were over 18 at the time of the raid, things are not the same.
Kenneth Thomas was 21 years old and nearly finished with a sports management degree at a small community college upstate when the raid happened. He was one of 25 young men from Manhattanville charged with the top offense in the indictment: conspiracy in the first degree, which is an A-1 Felony, the highest class of crime in New York State. Sentences run from 15 years to life.
Because Thomas was charged under New York's conspiracy law, prosecutors only needed to demonstrate that he was connected to a group of people who were involved in the two murders at the heart of the violence. The case against Thomas relied heavily on Facebook posts and YouTube videos in which he expressed an affiliation with Money Avenue—his profile name on a disused Facebook page is still Kenneth Moneyave Thomas.
Conspiracy charges have been used to break up gangs in New York for decades. But the NYPD's 2012 announcement of Operation Crew Cut—an increased focus and new allocation of resources to gang violence—was accompanied by a shift in how these conspiracy indictments were used.
Law enforcement began targeting younger defendants involved in "crews"—loosely-tied groups without formal membership or rigid gang structures. Involvement in these crews—like the Manhattanville and Grant crews, or those busted in the enormous April 2016 raid at the Eastchester Gardens complex in the Bronx—tends to be fluid and the lines between active participant and friend or neighbor are often blurry.
Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. announces the Manhattanville raid at a June 2014 press conference. .
According to the indictment filed by the Manhattan DA's office, aside from Thomas's social media posts, his conspiracy charge stemmed from two incidents—one in November 2011, the other in December 2011—in which he was socializing with small groups of people, one of whom was in possession of an illegal, loaded gun.
Conspiracy in the first degree, a crime in the same class as aggravated murder and terrorism, can be charged when an adult over 18 conspires with a minor under 16 to commit certain high-level felonies. Thomas had just turned 18 at the time of the November 2011 incident; one of the other individuals was younger than 16. Thomas was hit with the first degree charge.
The gang sweep produced a conviction for one of the two murders central to the case: the December 2011 killing of a young Manhattanville man named Walter Sumter. Taylonn Murphy, brother of the other murder victim, Tayshana Murphy, was found guilty earlier this year of Sumter's murder. (The men who killed Tayshana Murphy were tried and convicted prior to the sweep.)
Thomas ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser conspiracy charge. He had been incarcerated at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island for almost two years. He took time served and walked free two weeks later.
Thomas was offered his plea deal in exchange for testimony in the trial of Taylonn Murphy; his testimony and that of two other defendants from the 2014 indictment formed the crux of the prosecution's case. There was no forensic evidence linking Murphy to the shooting of Walter Sumter, no gun was recovered and no DNA found that matched him.
The kind of cooperation Thomas offered is a major advantage for prosecutors using the gang sweep strategy, says Marika Meis, the legal director of the criminal defense team at Bronx Defenders, which has represented defendants in other gang indictment cases. Indicting so many people means that "invariably, some will feel coerced into testifying because it's the only way they can get out from under the conspiracy charge," she says.
Derrick Haynes. (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Thomas was released on June 4, 2016, the two-year anniversary of the sweep. But by the end of July, he was back in court after getting picked up for jumping a turnstile and drinking in public. (The case was recently resolved without criminal charges.) Thomas declined to be interviewed for this story. "He's trying to put it behind him," his sister Iman Freeman, a lawyer in Baltimore, told me.
Almost everyone indicted in the sweep has pleaded guilty—95 of the 103 people charged took pleas. (Such a high plea rate is not uncommon; it mirrors the overall plea rate for felonies statewide.)
While attorneys work through the plea process, defendants are often stuck in jail for long periods of time. (This is also not unique to defendants in gang indictments.) Many of the people charged in the 2014 sweep spent a year or more at Rikers Island. Because of the severity and violent nature of the crimes charged, bail is often set impossibly high at the initial arraignment hearing, and defense attorneys generally have little standing to argue it because the sheer volume of information in the vast indictments is impossible to process in the short time they have between meeting the defendant and appearing in court.
"What we find is that after sitting in jail for years, many of our clients are made offers that are essentially time served," says Meis. The offers often involve pleading to crimes that "had they been charged originally, they probably would have been released" without bail, she says.
"There's no doubt that one day of jail, especially in New York City jails, is a traumatic experience," Meis says. "Imagine spending two years of your adolescent life in that environment."
In New York, an individual with a criminal record like Thomas's also faces a dizzying array of penalties upon release from prison or jail. He can be excluded from public housing, denied state education aid and barred from all manner of professional licensure, just to name a few—and that's on top of both legal and illegal discrimination he may experience whenever he tries to apply for a job or an apartment or a bank loan, potentially for the rest of his life.
Taking a plea means accepting all those collateral consequences. But the risks of not pleading are grave.
Alejandro Rivera was one of only a handful of the defendants who took their cases to trial. Rivera was charged with a laundry list of offenses: conspiracy in the first degree, attempted murder, assault, gang assault, and weapons possession.
His younger brother Mike Rivera summed up the trial in three words.
"He bombed it," Rivera said.
Alejandro Rivera was acquitted of many of the charges, but still found guilty of conspiracy in the third degree, attempted gang assault and attempted assault. He's currently serving 19 to 29 years at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, N.Y.
Mike wasn't arrested during the raid, but he remembers the day clearly. "It was crazy," he says. When the police came into his house to arrest Alejandro, Mike says, they told him he was lucky they weren't taking him too.
Recently, in a small office on Old Broadway in Harlem, I spoke with Mike and Taheem Pratt, another member of the Make It Happen Boys who was arrested during the sweep.
Pratt said he pleaded to conspiracy in the third degree and spent a year on Rikers and another 18 months at a prison upstate. He said his time behind bars was "hell."
"Jail ain't a fun place to be," Pratt said. "When we came back, we told people, 'You don't want to go there.'"
Pratt was 19 when he was arrested in the 2014 sweep. At first, he was charged with gang assault and conspiracy in the third degree, and he says he faced 25 years to life. He pleaded down to a single conspiracy charge with a one- to four-year sentence; he spent a year on Rikers and 18 months more at a prison upstate. As part of his plea, Pratt received youthful offender status, so his records were sealed at the end of his case.
He has a job now, but he says the support system for young people in his neighborhood is weak. "You go to jail and come home, you have more opportunities to work," Pratt says. "I get more services after I went to jail than before."
Manhattanville Houses. (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Agnifilo, the chief assistant DA, says the goal of the DA's office is to prevent people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place and that the way to do so is to invest in community resources like education and employment services.
She points to the DA's $250 million allocation to social services and offerings like the Saturday Night Lights youth sports program and the Clean Slate events that help people resolve outstanding warrants for minor offenses as evidence of Vance's commitment to crime prevention and diversion.
In the area around the Manhattanville and Grant Houses, there is also the West Harlem Stakeholders Group, a coalition convened by the DA's office shortly after the raid that meets twice a year to talk about crime in the area. There's been increased anti-gang education in the local schools, and Vance's office recently put out grant proposal requests for $50 million that his office plans to distribute to youth programs in four high-violence neighborhoods around the city, including West Harlem.
But according to Haynes, there hasn't been enough investment in the neighborhood's young people to prevent problems from re-emerging in the neighborhood. "Just because you lock up a hundred kids doesn't mean it's over," he says.
It's a matter of economics. Pratt, for example, says he thinks the Saturday Night Lights program is helpful for younger kids, but that it isn't effective at connecting with people as they reach the age he was when he was part of the Make It Happen Boys. "When you get to a certain age, you don't want to play no more," he says. "You want to find some way to make money, whether legal or illegal."
"But there's no jobs, so there's no way to make money legally," he says.
I ask Mike Rivera if the crews are still fighting as much as they were before the raid. "No," he says, shrugging. "But it was never really a gang. MHB, the Make It Happen Boys, whatever. It was just Manhattanville. We didn't have no colors or no one in charge. It was just us. It was just living in the projects."
Agnifilo refers to gang indictments as "precision prosecutions" that target the small group of individuals who drive much of the city's violence. She points to precipitous drops in Manhattan's already-low murder rate since Vance took office—70 in 2010, only 25 so far in 2016—to support the tactic. "Violence has fallen dramatically and it's because of this," she says.
But Babe Howell, a professor at CUNY Law School who studies gang policing, is skeptical of the approach. She says that gang raids in Chicago and California similar to the June 2014 sweep haven't reduced gang crime or gang affiliation. And for residents of neighborhoods like Manhattanville, she says, they create a world "where the police are the enemies and the gang members are the victims."
Howell also questions the precision of these operations. She says that large-scale conspiracy indictments often sweep up people whose affiliation with the crew stems only from where they live. "It seems to me to be fundamentally unfair," she says. "I grow up in project A, I grow up with this cohort of friends, I'm in the group whether I want to be or not. It's dangerous sometimes to try to disassociate yourself from the group."
"Anyone who's ever swept any place knows that you go back a week later, it needs re-sweeping," Howell says. "My belief is we'll probably see more of the same."
I ask Agnifilo if the DA's office is still keeping an eye on gang activity in the Grant and Manhattanville Houses. "Oh yeah," she says. "Absolutely."
I point out that kids still get together on Old Broadway to throw bottles at each other, and that they still call themselves by the same gang names. I mention what Haynes told me—that the raid took the top off the crews and left a vacuum that younger boys are now filling. And I ask if, given all of that, there will need to be another raid there.
Agnifilo shifts back in her chair. "I'm not really supposed to talk about that," she says. "But I will tell you that we monitor who they are, we know who they are, and we will do everything we can to stop them."
"We will not stop," she adds. "When it comes to the violence, we will never walk away."
Ben Hattem is a Brooklyn-based journalist and the 2016 recipient of the Nellie Bly Cub Reporter award from the New York Press Club.