Coming Together After Tragedy

Hundreds pack Harlem neighborhood forum to discuss public safety, youth engagement following the death of Tessa Majors.

03 Feb 2020 | 11:39

Residents of Upper Manhattan came together last week to discuss how the community can move forward following the December stabbing death of first year Barnard College student Tessa Majors.

The max capacity crowd packed the Police Athletic club in Harlem for the forum — which was organized by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office and Friends of Morningside Park — and listened to updates from city and neighborhood leaders before breaking out into smaller groups to talk about what they would like to see implemented in the community.

The evening’s conversation produced a variety of answers to two primary questions: How can Morningside Park be a safe place for residents? And, what can be done to engage young people in the neighborhood and set them up to become successful, active members of their community?

Out of the 17 robberies that took place in Morningside Park last year, twelve were committed by juveniles, Captain Aneudy Castillo, who serves as the commanding officer of the NYPD’s 26th precinct, told those in attendance Wednesday. He said juveniles played an outsized role in all of robberies in his precinct last year, committing 60 percent of the total robberies.

Majors, police say, was a victim of one of these robberies that went awry while she was walking through Morningside Park on Dec. 11. Three boys, 13 to 14 years old, allegedly accosted her, attempting to rob her when one of the boys stabbed her repeatedly in the stomach. The 13-year-old — who is not believed to be the one who stabbed Majors — has been charged with felony murder after police questioned him without an attorney present. A grand jury was impaneled last week to consider potential evidence again the two 14-year-old boys who police questioned and released, according to the Daily News.

One such piece of evidence is the DNA sample investigators took from the scene. Authorities hoped the DNA evidence would directly tie the 14-year-old suspect to the stabbing, but after testing the DNA, the sample was found to be inconclusive, according to a report from the New York Post.

"Doubly Devastated"

The police have implemented some crime prevention measures in the park since the murder, Castillo said. Six light towers and six security cameras have been installed in the park and around its perimeter. The precinct has also increased its presence in the area.

Council Member Mark Levine said he was working on securing funding to install better security cameras in the park that could be monitored by police in real time. He said the cameras in the park currently are of lower quality and he would want to install Argus model cameras, which cost $35,000 a piece, to stream video straight to the 26th precinct.

Levine said he was heartbroken over the death of Majors, and was “doubly devastated” by the young ages of the suspects.

“We're still awaiting details on that investigation, but it's not too soon to say that we are not doing enough for the young people of northern Manhattan,” said Levine. He said he wanted every student to have access to after school programs and to offer more jobs to teenagers.

“It's outrageous that we are turning away tens of thousands of teenagers a year for summer youth employment,” he said. “Every single child who wants to work should have that opportunity.”

Brewer also laid out her hopes for what could be accomplished in the wake of this tragedy, calling for a full-time, culturally appropriate social worker to be placed in every school in the city and for sustainable youth programming.

“It often takes horrible tragedy to bring people together,” said Brewer. “That's the worst part.”

The attendees were broken into smaller groups to discuss their ideas on topics such as public safety, restorative practices, unity and bridge building, parking improvements, and youth engagement.

The public safety group echoed the desire for better lighting in the park, but raised the concern that the cameras proposed by Levine could be used for surveillance and over-policing.

Youth Engagement

In talking about restorative practices, officials from the Department of Education led a discussion about creating a school culture in which students feel comfortable and safe to share their feelings with peers and teachers.

The unity and bridge building group said it was important to build stronger relationships with Columbia University and Barnard College. The group said that in recent years it has felt that Columbia cared more about property than the people who live in the community, and it’s a dynamic they want to change.

About a dozen middle and high school students crowded a table for the discussion on youth engagement, standing up and sharing what kind of programs and opportunities they would like to see offered in the community. Several mentioned wanting more job opportunities and college tours. Cooking classes, mentorship programs and a quiet place for homework and studying also made the list.

One of the students, Phanuel, said there should be more volunteer opportunities for students.

“We could go out and help the community recycle,” he said. “We could help the elderly.”

Community Board 10 Chair Cicely Harris said her group, which was tasked with identifying resource gaps in the community, left their discussion committed to directly connecting with a young person. She said creating a program alone won’t fix everything, and establishing bonds and relationships must be the foundation of their work.

“That’s where we have to start,” said Harris. “We are going to walk out of this meeting here and connect one young person to an activity, a program or to someone who will benefit their lives — and that just might be you."

“We could go out and help the community recycle. We could help the elderly.” Student at the meeting