Prince Joshua (P.J.) Avitto and Mikayla Capers should be playing right now, enjoying the warm June weather, without a care in the world. At the tender ages of six and seven, they deserve the same boundless hopes and dreams we wish for all children, with a long life full of potential and free from harm. Instead, P.J. is dead from fatal stab wounds, and Mikayla remains in critical condition in a hospital, fighting for her life.
The attack on these children in an elevator of their public housing complex is an unthinkable crime, and the pain and anguish of their family is unimaginable. As we mourn the loss of young P.J. and pray for Mikayla’s recovery, we owe it to them—as well as to their family and neighbors who live in New York City’s public housing—to avoid rushing to quick or incomplete fixes that will not adequately address the range of problems affecting the security of their homes.
For years, public housing residents have complained about broken locks and damaged intercom systems that fail to secure the entryways of their apartment buildings. And several buildings, including P.J. and Mikayla’s, do not have security cameras despite the City Council’s allocation of tens of millions of dollars specifically for that purpose. Thus, while such cameras are ubiquitous throughout New York City’s tourist destinations and private residential buildings, there were no cameras in the elevator where the children were attacked. Functioning locks, working intercom systems, and well-lit common areas are the bare minimum that public housing residents need to keep their homes safe from potential wrongdoers. Yet, such minimal security measures have been pushed aside as public housing buildings fall further into disrepair.
Police play a critical role in ensuring the safety of public housing, but their presence alone is not a solution. Indeed, in another recent tragedy, 16-year-old LaQuan Nelson was fatally shot near his public housing apartment just 100 yards from the 88th Precinct. And, unfortunately, past experiences have raised concerns about how police treat the residents they are supposed to serve. Public housing residents, many living in the same place their whole lives, have been falsely accused of trespassing by the police for doing nothing more than walking to or from their apartments. Children as young as eight years old have been stopped and asked for identification. Some residents have even been arrested for trespassing in their own homes. These risks extend to family and friends, to the point where people have been arrested for trespassing when bringing food to a sick loved one.
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