Officer Jeffery Schneider scoured the most vulnerable streets of Sea Gate, New York City’s first gated community, slowly rolling his marked car past sand-bound cul-de-sacs, foreclosed houses and along sand drifts that made reaches of Sea Gate’s high fence, susceptible to breach.
When dispatch reported a woman of interest who had been been removed for trespassing days before, had just entered the community in a taxi, Schneider, along with four other officers in two other cars, answered the call. The woman turned spotted by the guards out not to be the suspect, but the scenario was a snapshot of what sets the Sea Gate Police Department apart from the New York Police Department.
“You see how quickly we reacted to that?” said Officer Schneider as we drove away. “That kind of call takes the NYPD an hour to respond to unless it’s a robbery-in-progress or something just as big.” Schneider would know; he was a NYPD officer for over 20 years.
On a city map, nothing separates the neighborhood of Coney Island from the private community of Sea Gate. The gated area is on the western edge of the peninsula in Southern Brooklyn that Coney Island sits on. But at West 37th street’s intersections with Surf and Mermaid Avenues, roadblocks housed by brick and metal gates manned by Sea Gate policemen completely close Sea Gate off from the rest of Coney Island.
The SG Police Department Keeping Sea Gate Safe
“The majority of our effort goes into making sure that the only people inside of the gate are people that are supposed to be here,” said Schneider. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen one arrest. Crime is little to none here. It’s much slower paced than outside of the gates.”
The Sea Gate Police Department patrol and protect Sea Gate’s nearly 5,000 residents, who are predominantly Russian and orthodox Jewish. A large part of how they do that is by bottlenecking pedestrian and auto traffic into the community. It is an element of law enforcement separate from the New York Police Department.
The Sea Gate Police Department was founded in 1899. It is a law enforcement agency made up patrol officers, supervisors and a detective unit that investigate crimes that occur within Sea Gate’s jurisdiction. The officers are made up of retired police officers and New York State peace officers. The unit answers to the Sea Gate Association, and are funded by part of the annual dues that Seagate residents pay. The due is 13 percent of the value of the resident’s property.
There are 35 members of the SGPD. Eleven of those, including Chief Jeffery Fortunato, are retired New York Police Department officers. The other 24 are New York State Peace officers. New York State Peace officers complete a 100+ hour certification course spread over two months to earn some of the authority that NYPD officers wield.
Sea Gate Police officers have the same power as the NYPD within the community. They are authorized to make arrests, make car stops on Sea Gate property and issue summonses. They may carry a firearm, batons, pepper spray, and handcuffs. When an arrest is made, any on duty SGPD officer is able to take a suspect to the 60th Precinct, located on 8th street just north of Surf Avenue, for processing.
“While on duty, we are full blown police within the confines of doing our job. The only difference between Peace Officers and NYPD Officers is the duration of training,” said Joseph Battista, a 25-year-old SGPD Officer. Battista wants to join the NYPD, and has spent the last two years with the SGPD gaining experience.
Officer Schneider, a NYPD officer for over 20 years, spent time in precincts over Brooklyn. He spent two years in Coney Island’s 60th Precinct in the 1980.
“When I was at the 6-0, we respected the guys in Sea Gate as bothers like we would officers of any other precinct,” Schneider said. “That doesn’t seem to have changed.”
The SGPD have a much more positive relationship with the people of Sea Gate than the NYPD has with the rest of Coney Island. Residents all over the community recognized and waved at him. Schneider always slowed down to return the gesture. A woman came up to Schneider and told him that her child’s scooter, which she’d reported stolen two days before, had been returned by a neighbor.
“That is a lot of what we do here,” Schneider said. “It’s slower paced, but you’re able to forge relationships because you’re main focus isn’t combating crime, it’s being there for residents.”
Still, some Sea Gate residents see the SGPD as unnecessary, saying it serves to alienate Sea Gate from the rest of the area.
Wayne Gibbons, a Sea Gate resident since 1998, lives on Atlantic Avenue, one of the community’s most traveled roads. He says that in nearly 17 years there, he’s never seen the SGPD do more than write tickets, pull over speeders and question pedestrians they don’t recognize.
“I haven’t seen a lot of real police work. I’ve never seen them do anything that makes me believe that they are necessary on top of the NYPD,” Gibbons said. “I think it’s more oppressive for the people living inside of the gate. They are always scanning the sidewalk for people, getting out of their cars to check of question marks.”
The practice of the booth policeman asking for the identification and address of every non-resident at the gate is invasive by nature, but ineffective due to inconsistency. Many officers do follow protocol and request the aforementioned from every visitor, no matter how familiar. However, some officers wave people through without either. It comes down to the individual.
Gibbons says that he thinks that the Sea Gate Police work more to keep general mobility between Sea Gate’s territory and the rest of Coney Island stagnant than it does to provide any real layer of safety.
“The guards don’t make you any safer. There may be a little more activity inside of sea gate, but if something were to happen there are cops like there is anywhere else,” said Gibbons. “There are people living on the other side of that gate, and I don’t think they are any more or less safe than we are. The NYPD are who are truly tasked with protecting the public, including Sea Gate.”
Sea Gate officers are relics of a New York City long past, but with every resident interaction, they prove their value in maintaining the dynamic of Sea Gate as a secure and private community on the edge on one of New York City’s most underserved areas.
“Sea Gate wouldn’t be Sea Gate without the SGPD. No gate, no accountability,” said officer Schneider. “Even if the NYPD controlled the gate, the relationships that we forge with the community as a private entity isn’t something they can replicate while having to worry about the outside world.”