Judge Alex Calabrese with now-retired court officer Leroy Davis. Davis, who grew up in Red Hook NYCHA housing, asked from the Center's inception that they strive to treat everyone who comes into the Center, whether through the front door on their own or through the back door with the police, with respect. "We see people who come here as members of the community before they had a case, while the case is pending, and they're members of our community after the case is done," Calabrese said. Credit: Red Hook Community Justice Center
Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio has been emphatic about the importance of community policing. As the public waits to find out who will lead the NYPD under the city's first progressive mayor in decades, the de Blasio camp appears to have seized on a meaningful locale to make that announcement.
At the Red Hook Community Justice Center, in the Brooklyn neighborhood that is home to the city's largest public housing complex, a judge has been successfully engaging in community policing for over a decade.
Judge Alex Calabrese has been the presiding judge at the Justice Center since it opened in 2000. The Center works with three local police precincts — the 72nd, 76th, and 78th — that bring their arrestees to holding cells in the basement of the building. There are social workers, Legal Aid attorneys, and a chief district attorney on site day in and day out. Theirs is "a problem-solving court," Calabrese says, and the Department of Justice recently recognized it as such.
A DOJ report just last month analyzed the Center's success in decreasing recidivism among both adults and juveniles: adults that go through community court are 10 percent less likely to commit new crimes than those that go through traditional court, according to the DOJ, and juveniles are 20 percent less likely to be repeat offenders.
But Calabrese's job isn't limited to the bench. He takes the "community" part of the justice center as seriously as any legal element.
"I feel it's part of our obligation to bring the police and the community together," the judge explained in a recent interview. He attends all three precinct council meetings each month, taking part in the dialogue between the local police force and the community.
Perhaps most importantly, Calabrese has established and maintained productive working relationships with the local police captains. He spoke particularly warmly of the captain of the 76th Precinct. The two have one another's cell phone numbers and will touch base when community or police concerns arise.
For example, a woman upset that her three grandkids were stopped by police asked Calabrese to find out why they were stopped.
"That's a real concern," Calabrese said. "So I called the captain and I said, 'Look, you don't have to tell me —' and he said, 'No, no, I'll get you the information right away.'"
The captain called back with the 911 call that police were responding to at that time, and the description that had gone out over the radio.
"It matched — when I say matched the description, it matched the description enough that when I said to the grandmother, 'Here's the 911 call, three kids, certain age,'" he recalled. "I think it was white t-shirts, the kids had white shirts on. She said, 'All right, now I understand why they did that."
Calabrese feels strongly about the importance of providing social services and real long-term solutions. This drive comes at least in part from the frustration he experienced in arraignment when he was working in traditional court, seeing the same people "recycling" through the system because they weren't addressing "the problem that caused [them] to be involved with the justice system" in the first place: poverty, unemployment, addiction.
And, perhaps unexpectedly, it turns out police captains feel the same way.
When the police precinct has an issue with an arrestee, they can contact the district attorney at the center, who will bring the issue to Calabrese. Often, Calabrese said, they call to highlight arrestees they have been picking up repeatedly and to request certain measures be taken.
"It surprised me from the beginning, and it's happened from the beginning," Calabrese said, breaking into laughter. "The captain's asking, 'Can you find a program?' Which I thought was really interesting, it showed a real understanding of what's going to stop the recycling through the system."
The DOJ report found that in their neighborhood alone, serving three precincts, the Red Hook Community Justice Center saved taxpayers $15 million a year. If scaled up — other community justice centers, perhaps, assigned to clusters of the other 74 precincts in the city — the cost-savings could be significant, the DOJ said.