“I have many great people working with me, but at the end of this meeting, I want everyone to talk to me,” Captain Fausto Pichardo told several dozen Washington Heights residents at his first Community Council meeting. Two hours later, at 9 p.m., Pichardo hadn’t left the precinct, and was still speaking with the last few neighbors who had lined up to share their concerns.
In September, Dominican-born Pichardo became the first Latino to head a Washington Heights police precinct. Hispanics, especially Dominicans, welcomed his appointment to captain of the 33rd precinct as a community victory.
“If anything, this triumph comes too late, since Dominicans have been in Washington Heights for over 50 years,” said José Luis Cordero, the Dominican-born owner of a travel agency on West 165th Street. “We are finally achieving positions of power and those people can make decisions that benefit our community.” The relationship between Dominicans and the police, Cordero said, “is pretty rigid, and it’s time that our children stop needing to be afraid when they see a cop come.”
Pichardo, 35, was born in Santiago, in the Dominican Republic, and moved to New York with his family as a child. He joined the police department at 22, and has worked in Harlem, the Upper East Side and Midtown before moving to Washington Height’s 33rd precinct in September. He graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice with honors in 1999. A father or two daughters, he is tall and muscular, with thinning hair and a sense of humor about it –“I’m glad it didn’t rain today, because when it does my hair gets all frizzy,” he joked.
Pichardo asked residents for their collaboration in making the neighborhood safer. “If you are driving and leave your car,” Pichardo said, “don’t leave your keys in the ignition. And if you see something suspicious, call 911, because even though I would like to, I can’t be everywhere all the time.”
Crime has decreased by almost a third in the 33rd Precinct over the last decade. However, burglaries and grand larcenies are on the rise. Through September, reported burglaries increased to 128 from 88 in the same period last year, while rapes, murders and robberies declined, according to police statistics. Though crime rose both citywide (3.95 per cent) and in northern Manhattan (5.81 per cent) over the same period in 2011, the 33rd precinct managed a nearlly 4 per cent reduction.
Pichardo gesticulated and spoke with confidence in his public remarks, but after the meeting he spent 10 minutes listening attentively to a nervous, well-dressed woman, who complained in Spanish that the police had closed her hair salon without notifying her in advance. It happened weeks before Pichardo’s appointment as precinct captain, but he tried to calm her, saying he would investigate what happened. She gave him a hug.
The New York Police Department didn’t respond to repeated attempts to arrange an interview with Pichardo.
Hispanics account for over 70 per cent of Washington Height’s population, according to the 2010 census, which doesn’t count Dominicans as a separate category. People born in the Dominican Republic represent a majority of the dominant Hispanic population, with some studies estimating three in four Washington Heights Hispanics are Dominican.
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, also Dominican, said he met Pichardo the week after his promotion and thinks he is “a great cop, sensitive to the community.” Espaillat expects to work with him to reduce crime rates and improve relationships between police and Dominicans.
Not all Dominicans in the neighborhood feel discriminated against by the police. Cristina Campisano, 36, who was born in the Dominican Republic but grew up in New York, says she sees cops as her friends, and hopes Pichardo “will help make the neighborhood safer.”
Ramona Hernández, director of the Dominican Studies Institute at City University, agrees that Pichardo’s promotion marks a historic moment for Dominicans and expects Dominican children to see Pichardo as a role model. “In this case,” Hernández said, “Dominicans are being treated like everyone else, and they are being given the same opportunities as everyone else, which is what you expect in a democratic society.”
But many Dominicans in Washington Heights doubt Pichardo’s ascent will change police attitudes. Although Esteban Báez, 54, who owns a package shipping business on West 166th Street, savors this moment, he remains skeptical about tits consequences. “The police have their rules, and I don’t think having a Dominican commanding the troops is going to change how they act,” he said, referring to the controversial stop and frisk practice, which he said constitutes racial profiling.
“There’s no trust in the police department,” agreed Wally Collado, 41, a salesman at a hardware store on West 165th Street. “Policemen see us as terrorists. They have searched me on my way to work a few times and they don’t pay attention when we report other people’s crimes.”
Lack of knowledge of Dominican culture exacerbates the difficult relationship between the groups, Hernández said. If more Dominicans were police officers, she said, they would “distinguish bandits within Dominicans, instead of looking at all of us like bandits.”