Real-world ethics question: In a well-used city park, a man with a history of erratic behavior attacks a dog and its owner with a stick; five days later, the dog dies. The man is Black, the dog owner white; the adjoining neighborhood is famously progressive, often critical of the police and jail system. At the same time, crime is up in the neighborhood, with attacks by emotionally disturbed people around the city putting some residents on edge.
In a dog-loving, progressive enclave, where pushing law and order can clash with calls for social justice, what’s the right thing to do? How do you protect the public without furthering injustice against this man?
Here’s what happened in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when real-life residents faced this situation.
On Aug. 3, Jessica Chrustic, 40, a professional beekeeper, was walking her dog in Prospect Park a little after 6 a.m. when she saw a man rifling through the garbage outside the Picnic House. She had seen the man before — tall, with dreadlocks wrapped in a turban, carrying a long staff and often muttering to himself or cursing — and she usually kept her distance. But this morning there was no room to avoid him.
According to Ms. Chrustic, he started yelling about immigrants taking over the park, then grabbed a bottle of what she later concluded was urine and sloshed it at her and her dog. She tried to run away, but Moose, her 80-pound golden retriever mix, was straining toward the man, trying to protect her.
The man started swinging the stick, she said. One blow hit her, not seriously. Another connected solidly with the dog’s snout. Mary Rowland, 56, a hospital manager who was walking her dog nearby, said she heard the crack of wood on bone and came running toward them, screaming at the man to get away.
Both women called 911, and four patrol cars arrived within a few minutes. But by then, the man was gone. “Moose was bleeding from his mouth and pulling to get home,” Ms. Chrustic said. “My focus was just on caring for him.”
Ms. Chrustic was physically unhurt, but she was shaken. How could this happen in a park where she had never felt unsafe, even walking her dog late at night?
Moose had a shattered tooth that needed to be pulled. Ms. Chrustic posted a description of the encounter on the neighborhood social network Nextdoor, warning others about the man and asking them to report any sightings to the police. Her post elicited more than 280 comments in the coming weeks, mostly expressing sympathy. A total stranger on the forum offered to make her a bracelet with the name Moose on it.
But then the next weekend, Moose developed sepsis from a perforated intestine, caused by a blow Ms. Chrustic had not noticed. After emergency surgery, Moose died.
Weeks passed, and the man who attacked the dog was still at large. People on Nextdoor, working from Ms. Chrustic’s description, posted that they had seen him in one part of the park or another. Ms. Chrustic, who used to visit the park four times a day, now found it too traumatic to enter unless necessary.
She was especially frustrated that the man, who was well known to people in the park, had not been arrested. “You have a person who is walking around the park who is violent and needs to be removed,” she said. “He’s known by the community. It’s disheartening.”
It was a random incident that might once have been discussed by a group of dog owners. But now it had a forum for a much wider community, with arguments about policing, vigilantism, homelessness, mental health care and progressive obstinacy all feeding into a conversation that evolved beyond the crime that set it off.
“It’s complicated,” said S. Matthew Liao, a professor of bioethics, philosophy and public health at New York University. “It’s a conflict of values, between wanting security and social justice. Everybody has a responsibility in some ways.
“There are a bunch of issues here, a bunch of threats,” he added. “We can deal with them in a compassionate way, or a not compassionate way.”
The Nextdoor effect
Nextdoor, which claims an average of 37 million users per week, started in 2010 with the promise of connecting people with their neighbors and neighborhoods. One slogan went, “When neighbors start talking, good things happen.”
One thing they talked about, a lot, was local crime. In Nextdoor forums for communities all over the country, this included suspected crime and sightings of “suspicious” characters, leading early critics to say that what the platform really propagated was white fear. After complaints about racial profiling in 2016, the company instituted diversity training for its operations staff and new protocols for posts about crime and safety. But even in 2020, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez characterized it as an outlet for privileged white people to vent criminal fantasies about their Black and brown neighbors. She tweeted, “@Nextdoor needs to publicly deal w/ their Karen problem.”
A Nextdoor spokesperson said the company enables users to report any posts that they find offensive or discriminatory, which are then reviewed by volunteer community moderators or staff members. In 2021, only 1 percent of posts were reported as hurtful or harmful; about half of these were removed.
When Ms. Chrustic posted about the attack, the first responses were mostly notes of condolence and support. People with dogs posted that they had seen the man in the same area where she was attacked — why weren’t the police arresting him? Donations poured in to offset her veterinary bills.
But gradually, other voices emerged. A vocal minority asked why Park Slope residents, mostly white, were calling for the police to take down a man who appeared to be homeless and emotionally disturbed. Others called the man a “monster,” a “predator” or a “psychopath.” As on other social media platforms, the most ardent voices made the most noise.
Martin Lofsnes, 52, a dancer and choreographer who moved out of the neighborhood in 2020, came across the conversation while trying to sell some stuff and was appalled by the vitriol directed at an impoverished man, and by what he called “this vigilante attitude.”
He urged people on the thread to put their emotions aside and consider “400 yrs of systematic racism which has prevented black people from building generational wealth through homeownership resulting in the extreme disparity we see today.” Arresting the man, he wrote, would solve none of that.
With all the affluence in Park Slope, he posted, maybe critics should raise money to help the man, not throw him to the lethal jail system, from which he would most likely emerge more dangerous, or not emerge at all.
Others called Mr. Lofsnes naïve or accused him of mansplaining, or told him to take his comments to another thread.
“It’s easy to say that you’re for prison reform and you’re a liberal, until it happens to you,” Mr. Lofsnes said in an interview. “When it happens to you, you have to deal with it. You have to take a step back, even in that heated situation where her dog died, and say, ‘What does this do in the larger scheme of things?’”
To Ms. Chrustic and many on Nextdoor, the issue was simple: A man who killed a dog and attacked its owner was a risk to everyone. She asked people who saw the man to call 911 and to send her photographs so she could confirm that it was really him.
Though most people on the site were supportive, some of the commentary and messages disturbed her. She was accused of not cooperating with the police; some suggested that she did not deserve a dog because she had not protected hers. “People can be horrible,” she said. “And people also take it as an opportunity to vent. It becomes a politically divisive conversation I have no interest in being a part of.”
She worked with a police artist to create a sketch of the man, even though part of his face had been covered during the attack. The sketch went up on Nextdoor, and police officers posted it in the park, prompting more reports of sightings.
For Nicole Haddad, who stopped going to the park with her pitbull-vizsla mix, Kingsley, after he was the victim of a similar attack three years ago, Ms. Chrustic’s posts hit home. Since then, Ms. Haddad said, Kingsley has been fearful and sometimes aggressive and has needed expensive behavioral specialists and anti-anxiety medication.
“When I read Jessica’s post, I got really, really triggered,” she said. “I just knew the journey that Jessica was going to be in for, because it’s caused me emotional and financial duress. I reached out to her immediately.” The two women compared information and concluded that their dogs were attacked by the same man. To the people who focused more on social justice than removing a threat, Ms. Haddad said: “I tell those people to shut up. They don’t have a leg to stand on.”
“I don’t care that it’s being divisive, and that people don’t want to see this guy die in Rikers Island,” Ms. Haddad added. “I’m a New York liberal. I am absolutely for people getting the help they need. But this person is attacking people and killing dogs. He’s targeting women and dogs. He’s violent. He should not be in the park. He should be locked up and paying for his actions.”
Don’t be a cop, Kris
Kristian Nammack, 59, who works in sustainable financing, read the Moose posts on Nextdoor and grew frustrated that nothing seemed to be happening. So he decided to do something about it. He invited people on Nextdoor and Meetup to form a neighborhood watch group to “take our neighborhood back.” As an enticement, he created a logo and printed 10 T-shirts. “We may also get to wear cool berets,” his solicitation offered, nodding to the Guardian Angels, an anti-crime “safety patrol” prominent in the ’70s and ’80s.
Mr. Nammack’s name for the new group: Park Slope Panthers.
He did not see the backlash coming.
“In my mind it was getting people to provide some visibility of community members in the park, especially at hours when women feel vulnerable, like 6 to 9,” he said. “Not vigilantes, not with guns, not with the intention to tackle an attacker, but just to be another physical presence. I think just a presence deters crime.”
Mr. Nammack, who was involved in ACT UP and Occupy Sandy, presents himself as a soft-spoken voice of reason, with a Quaker background and a longstanding commitment to progressive causes. He was surprised suddenly to be embraced by people to the right of him. He said he was invited to appear on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and to meet with Curtis Sliwa, the Guardian Angels founder who ran a tough-on-crime campaign for mayor. Flustered, he declined both.
Then there was the group’s name, which was an immediate flash point: a white financial services guy using the Panther name to take action against a Black man. At the group’s first and only meeting, the scattering of potential volunteers was met by a group of four people, all white, who showed up to disrupt the proceedings.
As described in the news site Hell Gate and the newsletter Common Sense, things went awry almost from the start. A man calling himself Snow told the group, “We are super not into you guys having your meeting, or doing anything in the park,” according to Hell Gate. “The opposite of what we need right now is more cops in this park and more people who want to be helping the cops in this park, when people are already being, like, chased down by the cops.”
To the delight of people who enjoy making fun of Park Slope liberals, one of the disrupters, a woman calling herself Sky, said, “Crime is an abstract term that means nothing in a lot of ways,” according to Common Sense.
A few days after the meeting, someone spray-painted the sidewalk outside Mr. Nammack’s apartment: “Don’t Be a Cop, Kris.” It rattled him. “Even being gay, I don’t know that I’ve ever been the target of hate,” he said. “I felt that I was the target of hate.” He decided he did not have the time or energy to continue the group.
On Nextdoor, people seemed to be dug into their positions. Many bundled the lack of an arrest with the rise of other crimes in the neighborhood. Serious crimes in the 78th Precinct, which includes Park Slope, are up 50 percent from two years ago, though well below the highs of the early 1990s.
A spokesperson for the Police Department said they were conducting canvasses of the park but would not comment on why there had been no arrest. At a virtual town meeting, Capt. Frantz Souffrant noted that numerous people in the area wear dreadlocks and carry staves. Ms. Rowland — the woman who witnessed the assault — went on at least three rides with officers to confirm a sighting. Each time the person was gone, or it was the wrong man.
Both Ms. Chrustic and Mr. Nammack separately appealed to their representative on the City Council, Shahana Hanif, for help, but they came away feeling her staff members were more concerned with the safety of the man — whom they presumed to be homeless and mentally ill — than with the threat he might pose to others.
Mr. Nammack said he was told: “‘We don’t want the police involved in this.’” He said, “They didn’t seem concerned that there was a public safety threat with this man at large, and that he needs to be dealt with. The bigger concern was keeping this man out of Rikers, and let’s not do anything.”
Under New York law, depending on the level of cruelty, killing a dog can be a misdemeanor or a felony, carrying a prison sentence of up to two years. Michael Whitesides, a spokesperson for Ms. Hanif, called the situation complicated. “We don’t believe that the N.Y.P.D. is the vehicle to bring safety to our community,” Mx. Whitesides said. “When it comes to this individual, they’re clearly a present danger to others and most likely themselves, and figuring out how we can safely de-escalate that situation without putting anyone else in danger is complicated.”
The debate, Mx. Whitesides said, was simply what happens when progressive priorities clash. “Even among the progressives, everyone wants to be safe,” they said. “These debates in the community, while they can feel very tense — this is how we find a solution. It’s going to come through neighbors talking to neighbors.”
Can you support social justice and the police?
On a recent afternoon, nearly two months after the attack, the park was a 526-acre sanctuary from social media and liberal hand-wringing, its tree-lined paths and open fields indifferent to the disputations among its users. Schoolchildren, let out into the exquisite early fall afternoon, fanned excitedly over the gently sloping lawn, as a police cruiser idled nearby, its misery lights flashing. The park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed Central Park, both connects and separates the disparate neighborhoods around it.
Ms. Chrustic was willing to talk on a bench outside the park, but not to enter within. Like Mr. Nammack, she felt compelled to stress her progressive bona fides, including volunteer work she’d done for homeless organizations. She wore the M-O-O-S-E bracelet given to her through Nextdoor. “And I don’t even wear bracelets usually,” she said.
She said she still had not moved Moose’s bed or food bowls in her apartment.
“I’m very empathetic toward people who are unhoused and are having hard times and who have mental illness,” she said. “I think that there should be more resources for them. There should be more housing situations. But what I emphasize is that this is just one person who needs to be removed from the park. He’s violent. End of story.”
For two months, she has grown increasingly impatient with the police, local officials and neighbors on Nextdoor who seemed more concerned about her attacker’s welfare than her safety.
“Are they waiting for somebody to die?” she said. “Are they waiting for someone to get hurt more severely? I was lucky. My dog was not. What happens to the next person? What happens if it’s a child? How many more people need to be harmed?”
Mr. Nammack, for his part, had come to see his failed effort to start a community watch group, and the disastrous meetup, as a successful exercise in democracy. He had solicited a range of viewpoints, and he got them. “The Saturday meeting, looking back, it was great,” he said. “It brought up a lot of issues. It was quite diverse. It left more open questions than answers. They’re all good questions, but I don’t have the bandwidth to answer. So I feel like I opened a can of worms, and I’m walking away from it.”
For now, he was urging people to sign a petition on Change.org, demanding that Mayor Eric Adams “take appropriate action to rectify this matter.” More than 600 people have signed the petition.
But Mr. Nammack was not done. After a brief ban from Nextdoor, which was never explained, he returned to the fray. Once again he posted the police sketch of Ms. Chrustic’s attacker, above the headline: STILL AT LARGE. PROSPECT PARK VAGRANT. VIOLENT AND SOCIOPATHIC.
Twenty-seven people clicked that they liked the post. Then Mr. Nammack’s posts were removed again.
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