In New York Gang Sweeps, Prosecutors Use Conspiracy Laws to Score Easy Convictions

Young men from New York’s housing projects are being aggressively prosecuted as gang members using conspiracy laws passed to fight organized crime.

Assignment No. 30159278A   ---  30159278A      ---    Orig. Caption: JUNE 4, 2014-NEW YORK, NY-USA: Members of the NYPD Gang Division raid the Manhattanville Houses and the Grant Houses early Wednesday morning holding warrants for more than 100 gang members wanted in connection for murder, and other gang related offenses.(Robert Stolarik for the New York Times)            NYTCREDIT: Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
Members of the NYPD Gang Division raid the Manhattanville Houses and the Grant Houses early Wednesday morning, June 4, 2014. Photo: Robert Stolarik/The New York Times/Redux

Ana was half-asleep when she walked into her hallway and encountered dozens of police officers with shields and helmets. “Put your hands up! Do you speak Spanish or English? How many boys are in the back?” she said they shouted at her before handcuffing her, her husband, and one of her sons and walking into her young daughter’s room with their guns drawn. “I thought it was an action movie,” said Ana, who asked me not to use her last name. She struggled to describe the scene in her uncertain English. Her daughter Angie jumped in.

“She’s just sad because of what happened,” she said, trying to explain her mother’s long silences. “They woke me up. Wake up, put your hands up!” she shouted, imitating the officers who broke into her room. “They thought I was a teenager. I’m eight.”

Police were looking for Rodrigo, Ana’s 19-year-old son. Angie is the only one in the family who wasn’t handcuffed. “I was a little brave, but a little scared,” she said, describing how the rest of the family was lined up in the hallway.

Alleged gang members are escorted from the precinct to a waiting US Marshals bus Wednesday, April 27, 2016 at the 50 Precinct in the Bronx, New York. (Photo by Robert Sabo/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Alleged gang members are escorted from the 50th Precinct in the Bronx to a waiting U.S. Marshals bus on April 27, 2016, in New York.

Photo: Robert Sabo/NY Daily News via Getty Images
At the same time, in apartments across Ana’s public housing complex in the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the north Bronx, similar scenes unfolded. Officers popped the lock of Maureen Mattison’s apartment and searched through the rooms as one of her sons lay by the elevator door in his boxers, face to the floor and hands behind his back, and her 22-year-old daughter stood among a group of male officers in the pink lace underwear she had been sleeping in. “They would not let her put on anything until finally, ten, fifteen minutes later, one of the officers gave her his jacket to cover up,” Mattison said.

The officers had arrest warrants for Mattison’s two sons, 24-year-old David and 21-year-old Kevin, and her granddaughter’s father, Peter, who was staying there. It was not their first early-morning visit from the police: A couple of months earlier, officers had broken down the door instead of popping the lock, but they let everyone go after the raid. This time, housing officials must have been expecting the visit, Mattison speculated during a recent interview at the apartment, because as soon as the raid was over, they showed up to fix the door. She pointed to the shiny new doorknob.

In total, some 700 officers from an array of local and federal agencies, as well as helicopters and armored vehicles, swarmed the Eastchester Gardens projects and other public housing buildings in this section of the Bronx in the early hours of April 27. Officers from the NYPD gang squad, as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, were targeting two rival gangs. (Mattison said there are actually three gangs, and officials conflated two in their indictment.) Eighty-eight people were arrested in the blitz, which also led to new, federal charges against several people who were already serving time. In two separate indictments, the defendants, identified by their names and a variety of street names, were charged with racketeering conspiracy, narcotics conspiracy, narcotics distribution, and firearms offenses. Prosecutors said the gangs were connected to eight homicides that had occurred in the area since 2009, including that of a 92-year-old woman struck in her home by a stray bullet.

News coverage, accompanied by close-up photos of the suspects and aerial footage of the raid released by the NYPD, mostly mirrored the U.S. Attorney’s Office press release, which said the raid was “believed to be the largest gang takedown in New York City history” and aimed to “eviscerate” “ruthless” street gangs that had “terrorized” the community for years. Residents were quoted expressing relief to be rid of criminals.

Two years earlier, scores of officers in riot gear swept into the Grant and Manhattanville Houses in West Harlem in a raid that a press release by the Manhattan district attorney also billed as “the largest indicted gang case in New York City history,” which ended in 103 indictments. Months before that, in 2013, 63 people were charged after similar raids at East Harlem’s Taft, Johnson, and Lehman Houses.

With crime rates across the city at the lowest level in more than 50 years and the remaining violence mostly concentrated in the city’s poorest areas, law enforcement agencies have zeroed in on public housing — monitoring, arresting, and indicting scores of young black and Latino men, mostly on broad conspiracy charges that can come with decadeslong prison sentences.


New York police outside the Eastchester Gardens housing complex in the Bronx, New York, June 22, 2016.

Photo: Elijah Hurwitz for The Intercept

Policing After Stop and Frisk

Following the Eastchester Gardens raid, the NYPD promised more raids in the coming months. “We wanted to set the tone before the summer, where violence usually spikes,” NYPD Chief of Department James O’Neill told reporters. “We want to send the message that violence will not be tolerated in this city.” The NYPD did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment and interviews with officers leading the department’s anti-gang efforts.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which brought federal charges against those indicted in the Eastchester Gardens raid, declined to comment while the case is ongoing. A spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which has charged more than 300 alleged gang members since 2010, including the 103 in West Harlem, pointed to drops in local crime after two of the largest raids in that borough, writing to The Intercept that “there was an immediate, dramatic, and measurable improvement upon public safety in the immediate area following the law enforcement action.” She said the groups targeted in the 2014 West Harlem raids were responsible for two homicides, 19 nonfatal shootings, and 50 shooting incidents since 2010. A year after the mass arrest, the nonfatal shootings were down to two and the shooting incidents to eight, the spokesperson said. Following the 2013 East Harlem raids,, she added, shootings dropped by 75 percent.

In this photo provided by the New York City Police Department, officers gather at a location in the Bronx borough of New York during a takedown of two rival drug gangs in the early hours of Wednesday, April 27, 2016. According to the U.S. Attorney, nearly 700 New York Police Department officers and federal agents accompanied by helicopters and armored trucks executed pre-dawn raids, taking down the rival drug gangs from top to bottom. (New York Police Department via AP)

Officers gather in the Bronx borough of New York during a raid in the early hours of April 27, 2016.

Photo: NYPD/AP
But in community meetings and private conversations, local residents have expressed rage over the raids and said that when they asked for safer neighborhoods, they didn’t mean officers in riot gear breaking into their apartments in the middle of the night and taking away their children.

“As a NYCHA resident, I don’t want helicopters and tanks in my community to get the drug dealers out,” a woman said at a recent meeting, referring to the New York City Housing Authority, the agency overseeing public housing. Someone else in attendance called the raids “social cleansing of the projects.”

After the Eastchester Gardens raid, many families whose sons had been arrested received letters notifying them that NYCHA had initiated termination proceedings against them. Mattison said she had been late on rent, but that housing officials told her she had broken the lease by letting one of her sons and her granddaughter’s father stay at her apartment without declaring it. Because they were now caught up in a federal case, she said they told her, the whole family had to go. A spokesperson for NYCHA told The Intercept that when the agency learns of the arrest of an individual with connections to public housing, it opens a “rigorous and comprehensive investigation.” In the Eastchester Gardens case, officials identified 16 individuals named in the indictment with connections to tenants, leading to two permanent exclusions — an option given to family members to save the tenancy. The remaining cases are ongoing. “The safety of our residents is NYCHA’s top priority,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “The authority continues to partner closely with the NYPD and others to address neighborhood public safety challenges.”

Last month, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice announced it would allocate $32 million “in targeted investments that will provide district attorneys with tools to combat the leading drivers of violent crime in each borough.” But as the city invests more money in law enforcement, and as police promise new raids, some of the city’s most disenfranchised residents and a handful of advocates fear that there isn’t enough scrutiny of police, prosecutors’ targeting of gangs, and its enormous impact on hundreds of families.

“They’re casting far too broad a net,” said Babe Howell, a criminal law professor who in 2013 obtained details about 28,000 individuals on an internal NYPD “gang list.” “It’s a world where there’s not enough crime, and there are too many prosecutors and too many resources in law enforcement.”

A street mural depicts police officers using the stop-and-frisk tactic in New York, Aug. 20, 2012.

A street mural depicts police officers using the stop-and-frisk tactic in New York, Aug. 20, 2012.

Photo: Robert Stolarik/The New York Times/Redux

In October 2012, faced with a class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” practices, the department doubled its anti-gang units and began monitoring suspects’ Facebook and YouTube activity. That’s despite the fact that gangs were responsible for less than 1 percent of the crimes taking place in New York every year. Since police started categorizing murders as “gang related,” such killings have ranked at the bottom of the list of causes, according to Howell, who has studied the NYPD’s shifting strategies.

“Until 2012, the police were basically stopping every black and brown person in order to police them and control crime based on a profile,” she said. “Since 2012, they put more and more money into watching everyone on Facebook and social media, and now they’re able to link people within groups and claim that they have agreed to commit crimes. And they hold everyone responsible for the worst thing anyone in their circle has done.”

Following the 2014 Harlem raids, prosecutors said they had reviewed “more than a million social media pages,” and the indictment listed dozens of allegedly incriminating Facebook comments. But a spokesperson for the Manhattan district attorney said that social media monitoring shouldn’t be over-emphasized, as the prosecutions were also built on surveillance video, undercover operations, wiretaps, and calls placed from Rikers Island.

For many black and Hispanic teenagers growing up in the city’s public housing projects, the shift in policing tactics was hardly perceptible. They were regularly stopped and frisked before, and they continue to be watched and harassed now.

Ana’s son Rodrigo was constantly stopped by the officers patrolling Eastchester Gardens, she said, showing a passport photo of him wearing braided hair and a childlike expression. He looks much younger than his 19 years and has the words “Grandma RIP” tattooed on his arm. Once, when he went to see a friend in a different building of the same housing complex and forgot his ID, he was arrested for trespassing. Recently, an aunt noticed a plainclothes officer in a parked van taking pictures of him with an iPad.

Police also stopped Maureen Mattison’s sons countless times, she said, or asked them to come to their cars, knowing well that being seen speaking to cops can put one at risk in certain neighborhoods. A few times, her sons were caught with marijuana, and on at least two occasions, police chased them up the stairs to their apartment, where Mattison refused to let the officers in without a warrant.


Eastchester Gardens in the Bronx, New York, June 22, 2016.

Photo: Elijah Hurwitz for The Intercept

Who Is a Gangster?

Mattison admits that her youngest son smokes weed, but “that’s the only thing they can get him on,” she said. She adamantly denies that her sons are involved in gangs or any of the crimes they have been charged with. But there are groups of boys hanging out together, she says, some of whom are involved in criminal activities, and everyone who grew up here knows one another. One of the young men named by prosecutors as a gang leader was her daughter’s middle-school boyfriend. Her sons, who in recent years had been spending a lot of time with family upstate, knew him as a childhood friend.

“You go outside, say hello to that guy, give each other a pound or whatever they do — that doesn’t mean that they do whatever they are saying they do together,” she said. “They’re friends. Not friends from gangs, friends from school.” Many of those directly responsible for the crimes listed in the indictment are already serving time for them, but the federal conspiracy charges name new people, including her sons. They’re “guilty by association,” Mattison added.

“So now because he’s associated with them, because he knows them, he’s going to get charged with that too,” she said. “If one boy from the group goes out on his own and does something, everybody else still gets charged with what he did.”

“The gang label basically short-circuits most critics of over-policing,” Howell said. “People are critical of stop and frisk, people are critical of broken windows, but when we put the label ‘gang’ on someone, then criticism stops.”

Part of the problem is the public imagery of what a gang is and does versus the reality of these public housing-based “crews” of teenagers with bombastic names like “Make It Happen Boys” and “Big Money Bosses.” While neighborhood crews may meddle in low-level drug dealing, adopt the language and bravado of larger organized gangs, and sometimes claim affiliation to notorious groups like the Bloods and the Crips, they are a lot looser in structure and their turf wars are more often over some affront voiced on social media than control of any money or territory.

Determining exactly who belongs to a gang or crew, and then within it, who is actually conspiring to commit crimes, is not as straightforward as checking membership rolls. And assuming today’s public housing crews are as organized and methodical as some of their early inspirations or other criminal groups reveals a lack of understanding, critics say. More often than not, if you’re born on a block, that’s the group you belong to, regardless of how actively or reluctantly you identify.

Prosecutors disagree. “The activity covered in recent indictments would hardly be described as ‘loose, disorganized groups,’ by the victims of the shootings they orchestrated, but rather targeted and senseless acts of violence perpetrated by those involved in gang activity,” a spokesperson for the Manhattan district attorney wrote in a statement.

But while someone undoubtedly committed those crimes, it’s far from clear that dozens of people “conspired” to commit them.

“Are you going to lock up every black boy or Spanish boy who lives around here?” Mattison asked. “That’s not going to be the solution. But that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

Just days after her sons and dozens of others were arrested, more shots were fired down the street, she said. “My sons are locked up. So who’s shooting?”


Eastchester Gardens in the Bronx, New York, June 22, 2016.

Photo: Elijah Hurwitz for The Intercept

Organized Crime, Disorganized Youth

Conspiracy charges allow for scores of people with circumstantial connections to crimes to be sentenced for them, sometimes over something as trivial as giving a ride to someone, or lending a cellphone to a friend, Darius Charney, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The Intercept. “It’s one of the most draconian aspects of our criminal justice system, because it really does allow people who have done literally nothing wrong, or played a very minor role in some criminal act, to be punished or imprisoned on almost no evidence,” he said. “I think conspiracy is one of the most unfair bodies of law.”

Gangs pose a challenge to prosecutors and advocates alike — on the one hand is the continuing violence, whose victims and perpetrators often share the same circumstances, and on the other is the enormous impact of locking up hundreds of people for long sentences, sometimes over tenuous connections to the crimes or those who committed them.

“A lot of people are afraid to defend these young men because they’re branded as criminals and people can’t differentiate between members. And there is violence; it’s not like it’s zero,” said Josmar Trujillo, an East Harlem community activist who, with others, has been plastering the projects’ lobbies with fliers warning of upcoming raids. “This isn’t a case like stop and frisk, where 99 percent of people were completely innocent. It’s not a clean case, you’re not going to rush to defend them. You’re not going to see Al Sharpton and the ACLU come out and challenge it.”

Trujillo and others take issue with the indiscriminate approach to the violence, and in particular, the widespread use of conspiracy laws like the federal RICO laws and their state-level equivalents, which were passed in the 1970s and 1980s to fight organized crime groups like the Mafia. “I think it’s pretty obvious that charging an 18-year-old kid from the projects with the same laws that you were going after John Gotti with is pretty disproportionate,” he said.

Conspiracy laws, and the common practice among prosecutors of over-charging defendants to get them to collaborate or plead guilty, offer an easy boost to conviction rates.

Conspiracy laws, and the common practice among prosecutors of over-charging defendants to get them to collaborate or plead guilty, offer an easy boost to conviction rates. They lower the standard of proof — because it’s far easier to “prove” a conspiracy than direct participation in a crime — and come with sentences that are so severe that most people plead to charges that will send them to prison for years or decades, just to avoid being sent to prison for life.

“Every time they talk to him, they say he should take a deal,” Mattison said of her son David’s court-appointed lawyers. He was offered 55 years. “He’d be seventy-something when he gets out,” she cried. “For stuff he didn’t do?”

Even though dozens of defendants are indicted together, each has to fight his charges alone, further reducing chances of a substantial defense and pushing defendants to testify against one another in an attempt to protect themselves. The best defense attorneys would have a hard time fighting broad conspiracy charges in court, legal experts say. For those who can’t afford better representation than overstretched public defenders, the pressure to plead out is intense. “They’re burying these kids. There’s no real trial or truth established,” said Trujillo. “If that were my son, I would find it hard to tell him not to take a plea deal. I’d rather he serve eight to 10 than 25 to life.”

So far, no one has posed a legal challenge to the application of conspiracy laws intended for organized crime to groups of very disorganized youth. The language of conspiracy law itself doesn’t specify the kinds of crime it can apply to, the spokesperson for the Manhattan district attorney said, adding that criminal organizations operating today don’t “fit neatly” into categories like “organized crime.”

“Conspiracy law was meant to get at when people make a concrete agreement to commit certain kinds of crime, not when they join a group that’s in their neighborhood,” said Howell. “You can’t exist in certain neighborhoods without belonging to your block’s crew. Unless you’re going to be locked inside all your life, and even that may not be enough.”

A week after the Eastchester Gardens raid, at a tense community meeting between residents, law enforcement, and local officials, participants demanded an explanation for the conspiracy charges. “We want to know that for every single individual that was arrested, there was a reason that every single individual got arrested,” Joshua Whitlock, who grew up in the complex and has been organizing support for the affected families, said in an impassioned speech as the audience broke into applause. “It would never happen in any other community but in our community that you have charged 120 people without basis for every single individual.”

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, who led the meeting, said all charges were justified. “That’s what they indicted them for,” she said, losing her patience. “Enough evidence was presented to a federal grand jury, and they voted those indictments.” Her office declined to comment for this story.

The Eastchester Gardens raid was the first to lead to federal charges. But the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which has prosecuted a number of Harlem-based crews in recent years, rejected the accusation that conspiracy charges were unfairly applied in those cases. “The decision to charge someone with conspiracy is not one that is taken lightly by our office,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “It’s never a cause for celebration to charge a teenager with a felony, but we have an obligation to keep New Yorkers safe, and when serious crimes are committed, they’re taken seriously.”


The Manhattanville Houses in Harlem, New York, June 22, 2016.

Photo: Elijah Hurwitz for The Intercept

Where Are All the Young People?

While taking hundreds of people off the streets can reduce crime in the short term, Babe Howell, the law professor, warns of the long-term risks of such drastic methods. In Chicago and Los Angeles, for instance, where law enforcement pursued a policy of aggressive repression of gangs in the past, gangs are a significantly larger problem than they are in New York. “In the long run, in cities that have seen very draconian law enforcement responses to gangs, gang problems have increased,” she said. If gang affiliations are loose on the outside, they are reinforced once a person is sent to prison and labeled as belonging to a particular group. And locking up young men during the years when they’d be most likely to establish family ties and “age out of gang affiliation” only compounds the long-term damage, she added.

“The NYPD and prosecutors are doing this with the goal of reducing crime, but they’re not paying attention to the history, and they’re not paying much attention to fairness,” Howell said. “What the prosecution is doing now is investing in a future of gang violence.”

The investigations leading up to mass raids often lasted for years, starting when some of the defendants were little more than children.

Resources devoted to locking up alleged gang members would better serve the community if they were invested in efforts to prevent and disrupt the violence, she argued, noting that the investigations leading up to mass raids often lasted for years, long before many of the crimes were committed, and starting when some of the defendants were little more than children.

Taylonn Murphy is one father who tried to come up with a solution. After his daughter Tayshana, an 18-year-old rising basketball star known as “Chicken,” was gunned down in 2011 at the Grant Houses where she lived, he befriended the mother of one of the boys who had shot her, and along with other residents, attempted to serve as a mediator between rivaling groups at the Grant and Manhattanville projects, sometimes physically intervening in fights.

Then one early morning, hundreds of officers raided both complexes and arrested most of the youths he had been trying to dissuade from revenge, including Tayshana’s brother, Taylonn Jr. Tayshana’s murder was one of two homicides listed in the indictment of 103 individuals following that raid.

Ninety-seven of the young men charged then took guilty pleas, four were convicted at trial, one was acquitted at trial, and one had his case dismissed. Taylonn Jr. insisted he was innocent of the murder of a boy who had reportedly mocked his sister’s death on YouTube. He went to trial and was convicted, and last month he received a sentence of 50 years to life.

The elder Murphy continues to speak up against violence, though he remains angry with the law enforcement officials who watched the Grant and Manhattanville feud unfold over the years. “You didn’t see these guys fighting?” he asked, exasperated, at a recent meeting. “I watched as they charged these people for the death of my daughter, and I’m telling them, it’s not about it.”

“These raids are going to start getting to the point when you won’t even hear about them,” he added. “And you’ll turn around one day and ask, Where are all the young people at?”

He paused. “Locked up.”

Top photo: Members of the NYPD’s gang division raid the Manhattanville Houses and the Grant Houses early on the morning of June 4, 2014.

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