Captain Robert Conwell took over earlier this month as commanding officer of the 68th Precinct, covering Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, where he will preside over the rollout of the police department’s neighborhood policing program, as well as the district attorney’s diversion program to send low-level drug users to counselling instead of jail. Conwell sat down with us to discuss those initiatives, and how he plans make sure his precinct is inclusive of the area’s diverse communities.
Julianne McShane: Can you clarify for readers, who may not know, what exactly is the role of a commanding officer?
Robert Conwell: As a commanding officer, I am ultimately responsible for every aspect of the precinct: operations, investigations, traffic, quality of life, crime. I’m the head figure of the precinct — we give [officers] the crime information, where they should be looking at, where they should be doing enforcement. We monitor their performance, their civilian complaints, and their interactions with the community, and as problems arise [internally], we address as needed.
JM: Your previous posting, the 67th Precinct in East Flatbush, has higher crime rates than the 68th. How will you change your approach moving to this lower-crime precinct and how will you maintain its trend of decreasing crime?
RC: This precinct is low violent crime, but we still have property crime. This precinct is more of a quality-of-life, community-driven precinct, where I will have to address things such as traffic complaints, blocked driveways, loud noise, and so on. Going forward, we’re going to do community outreach with my domestic violence team, we’re going to go over education on narcotics and stuff like that, and I believe that those things will help us to reduce crime.
JM: As far as the neighborhood policing initiative that’s coming this summer — why is that important for a neighborhood that’s so low in crime?
RC: This community was made for the neighborhood policing program. I have experience with it in Sunset Park and East Flatbush. It’s going to give two officers in each area of the precinct very intimate knowledge, and it’s going to be hyper-local policing, so community members will know who those two officers are. Those two officers will also hold their own quarterly meetings, specific to that section of the precinct, and get to know the community, and they’ll get to know the problems. The regular patrol cars who respond to 911 calls and do routine patrol will be assigned to the same sectors every day, and they’ll work closely with the neighborhood policing officers assigned to that sector.
JM: This neighborhood is increasingly diverse — there are growing immigrant populations, and the most recent census data showed that the Asian population in the district increased by 54 percent between 2000 and 2010, and the Hispanic population increased by nearly 48 percent. How will your officers reach out these different communities, and do you think that they’ve done enough so far to respond to racially motivated aggressions?
RC: Yes. Listen, the police department is doing a great job in diversifying and matching New York City demographics. Earlier today, I visited the mosque on Fifth Avenue and 69th Street [Islamic Society of Bay Ridge] — my first visit there as commanding officer — so I hope my officers take the lead to reach out to all aspects of the Bay Ridge community. And my message to the different groups is: We’re here to serve everyone. No group — or no citizen, or no non-citizen — should be afraid to call the police. We don’t ask for citizenship status, and that will be one of the things that I’ll work on. I want to make sure that we reach out to every member of Bay Ridge.
JM: How much of an issue is the opioid epidemic in this precinct, and how will Project CLEAR change the way that officers respond to it?
RC: It seems as though much of our crime is narcotics-driven. A lot of our crime is property crime: burglaries, car break-ins, grand larceny, theft of unattended items. Generally, narcotics drive those types of crimes — people need money for drugs when they’re hooked. I’m going to continue the previous commanding officer Joe Hayward’s efforts to attack narcotics offenses. The CLEAR program is a step in the right direction in that we’re not looking to prosecute low-level drug users who need help more than they need prosecution. However, we will continue to aggressively go after drug dealers.
JM: What about traffic enforcement? Locals have complained about double parking and U-turns on Fifth and Third avenues, and they said the precinct doesn’t always take those complaints seriously.
RC: We’re going to enforce the very specific offenses that the transportation chief feels contributes to collisions, so double parking is one of them. Others are cell phones and texting while driving, speeding, failing to yield to pedestrians. We focus our enforcement on the corridors where we see the most collisions, so 65th Street sees a lot of collisions, Third and Fifth avenues, our commercial strips, I’m well aware of the double parking there. We do take it seriously and we will enforce it.
JM: And what about response times? Locals said they’ve called in issues — specifically, domestic disputes on the street or dogs locked in cars — and they were disappointed with the response times — which, in the case with the dogs, was allegedly 12 hours after they first called. Is that a complaint that you’ve heard, and is that something you plan to work on?
RC: I haven’t heard it yet, that’s something I will look into — 911 jobs are dispatched to us in priority order. There are some days where it’s just crazy, and sometimes there is a sector car trying to get to a job, and it could be re-routed to higher priorities multiple times in a day. But I will take a look at that and that is important to me.