Shortly after the arrest of the suspected subway shooter Frank James, New York witnessed a wonderful moment when a trio of grinning, literal guys-on-the-corner whooped it up for the news cameras, explaining how they spotted, trailed, and pointed out James to the cops.
“I thought, Oh my God, this is the guy, we need to get him,” said Zach Tahhan, a 21-year-old security technician who spotted James while working on a hardware store’s camera in the East Village. “He was walking down the street, I see the car of the police, I said, ‘Yo, this is the guy!’”
In his exuberance recounting the episode. Tahhan snatched the TV microphone from my colleagues at NY1 and began interviewing his two compatriots, the store manager Francisco Puebla and Tahhan’s cousin and co-worker Mohamed Cheikh, about how the three of them scanned internet accounts on their cell phones and realized they’d found the most wanted man in New York. The fact that James himself had called police and notified them of where they could pick him up takes nothing away from the sharp eyes, quick thinking, and bravery of Zach and his associates, who deserve the notoriety they have received, including a nice write-up in the New York Times and social-media stardom in the form of a hashtag, #ThankYouZack, that trended for hours. In the end, the $50,000 reward for information leading police to James was split between five people.
The key role played by everyday New Yorkers underscores the fact that Mayor Eric Adams has 9 million potential allies waiting and eager to be activated, enlisted, and engaged in the battle against crime and disorder.
The attack attributed to Frank James, who allegedly set off smoke canisters and abruptly began shooting innocent strangers on a Brooklyn subway, is terrifying, but it’s a one-off. In the hundreds of video rants he posted online before the shooting, James reveals himself as an unusually damaged and dangerous man, likely to join a long list of scary perpetrators of violent mayhem in our city that includes David Berkowitz, Rashid Baz, Joel Rifkin, and Colin Ferguson.
The NYPD, FBI, and dozens of other law-enforcement agencies that swiftly scoured the city and turned up evidence were impressive, professional, and effective, as were the MTA’s 10,000 subway cameras. “We were able to shrink [James’s] world quickly,” Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said. “There was nowhere left for him to run.”
But elsewhere, the war on violence isn’t going so well. Shootings and other major crimes are up, and the bullets in many cases are hitting teenagers or taking place on city playgrounds. Things are likely to get worse over the summer.
The not-so-small army that cornered and captured James is not likely to conquer the larger problem of violence on their own. Adams called for police “omnipresence” in the subways and added 1,000 new cops to patrol underground. They didn’t deter James, stop him in the act, or apprehend him. And early numbers show that the mayor’s signature anti-gun units made 135 arrests — of which only 26 actually resulted in gun seizures. Crime in New York is too big to simply tamp down with a new round of aggressive policing. The city’s block and tenant association leaders, merchant groups, and other grassroots leaders need praise, support, encouragement, and cooperation from City Hall.
Back in the 1990s, a critical but often overlooked factor in the steep plunge in crime was the efforts of regular New Yorkers who — at great personal risk — identified crackhouses, created citizen patrols, and demanded more responsiveness and accountability from local police commanders. Many of the same grassroots leaders also started after-school and recreation programs to steer young people away from trouble, and fought for the resources to keep the work going.
It’s not clear that the mayor recognizes this. Aside from lip service paid to the idea of deploying violence interrupters — in ways that may not be realistic — the efforts of neighborhood-based activists gets little verbal support from City Hall.
We need to summon a new generation of civic activists to get brave, get connected, and get involved. If Adams casts the current battle as a war between the cops and crooks — with the rest of us treated as spectators whose only job is to pay our taxes and applaud the police — the criminals will continue to have the upper hand.
There are lots more Zachs out there. City Hall needs to find them, talk to them, and get them into the fight.