BY TRONE DOWD
If one were to listen to one of its many hopeful community leaders, one would hear that Southeast Queens is in the process of heading in a new direction—from the creation of affordable housing and a renewed focus on the arts to businesses and companies willing to invest in what is being looked at as a community at the dawn of a new era. A new day has arrived for Southeast Queens, a day towards which the community has been progressing for years.
But it wasn’t always like this. Ask any long-time resident of the borough and you will hear harrowing tales of Southeast Queens that are less than two decades old. Today, four of the top 10 safest streets in Queens are in this section of the borough—according to crime statistics on NeighborhoodScout.com—and this is a direct result of a vested effort from the city’s Police Department. In fact, all across the city, crime is at an all-time low.
Southeast Queens’ precinct’s—the 103rd, 105th and 113th—have worked to build relationships with the people, understanding where the concerns of residents lie and how they can best serve the community. Both the 103rd and the 113th have seen promising results due to the return to neighborhood policing. Meanwhile, the 105th—which has new leadership in Commanding Officer Inspector Jeffrey Schiff—has taken on a new commitment to unity that has raised the precinct’s work to the next level of efficiency.
But what was it that incited such change? According to some of the officers who spoke to the PRESS of Southeast Queens, it was the murder of one of their own brothers in blue—Officer Eddie Byrne.
In 1988, Southeast Queens was a different place. Officer Eddie Byrne, a 22-year-old rookie at the time, was at the start of what looked to be a promising career. Starting off as a transit cop just two years prior, Byrne was transferred to the 103rd Precinct.
On Feb. 26, the young officer was assigned to keep watch on the home of a local resident who repeatedly reported suspicious activity and harassment from unidentified individuals on his block. At 3:30 a.m. that day, Byrne was sitting alone in his marked police car on 107th Avenue and Inwood Street in South Jamaica.
Despite the violence for which Southeast Queens had become known, Byrne braved his assignment and fulfilled his duty.
A car pulled up next to Byrne’s vehicle. Two men exited, one approaching the passenger car door of Byrne’s car. As one knocked on the door of the passenger side, the other man lifted a .38 caliber pistol and shot Byrne in the head five times.
The two shooters and their two lookouts were apprehended during the week of the murder and convicted. But while the law brought the offenders to justice, the NYPD took Byrne’s death and saw it as a turning point.
Sgt. Ernie Naspretto, a retired officer from the 103rd Precinct, said that the shooting was a culmination of the effect drugs had on Southeast Queens.
“This homicide truly represented an eternal assault on a nation,” Naspretto said.
Naspretto said that in pockets of Southeast Queens, the toll of drugs—such as crack cocaine—affected residents living in such areas as South Jamaica.
Bruce Adler, a photographer for the PRESS of Southeast Queens, was working dispatch in the 103rd on the night that Naspretto was killed. He said that he remembers how things changed as a result of Byrne’s assassination.
“This really started the trend towards broken windows and more community policing,” he said. “They had community policing before then, but it really put the emphasis on stopping the smaller stuff. The belief was, when you stop the smaller crimes, you’re stopping the bigger crimes that follow.”
Naspretto also said that the community response was palpable.
“It was everything from fear to support, for the most part, for the cops,” he said. “There was also some cautious hope that this is what it took to maybe do something about this.”
He said that the involvement of the precinct in the community was bolstered afterward. Byrne’s death received national attention. President George H.W. Bush carried Byrne’s shield in remembrance, saying that his death was a primary example as to why the country needed to crack down on drugs.
“It was bad back then,” Naspretto said. “Things wouldn’t really turn around until [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani took office. The homicide rate was well over 2,000. So much of that was related to drugs, no doubt about it.”
Today, Byrne has not been forgotten. In the 103rd Precinct, officers commemorate his memory with an annual ceremony. In South Ozone Park, Officer Edward Byrne Park was named after him.