Spotlight: Gun Violence Suppression Division

The unofficial GVSD challenge coin, showing Lady Justice wearing a bandolier and holding a gun (Screenshot: eBay)

As newspaper headlines and local news disproportionately cover a supposed New York City crime wave, one specialized police unit has been praised by the mayor and local media. This unit is positioned to be the tip of the spear in the police department’s anticipated response to the supposed crime-aggedon. 

No, it’s not the Neighborhood Safety Teams that received a great deal of attention earlier this year when Mayor Eric Adams announced that they would effectively replace the disbanded and notorious NYPD anti-crime units. Instead, the Gun Violence Suppression Division (GVSD) seems to be poised to put together some of the department’s most complex criminal cases with a specific focus on alleged gangs and crews. While this unit may seem to answer the fearmongering in the media, what do we know about the department’s GVSD units?

The creation of the GVSD was first announced in early 2016 by former mayor Bill de Blasio, who christened the then 200-officer unit as part of Project Fast Track, a so-called gun violence reduction strategy that also involved “dedicated judges” to “swiftly” sentence the gun and gang arrests that the NYPD funneled into the court system – hence the “fast track.” Of course, with the NYPD’s long and checkered history of wrongful arrests, one would assume the courts would have to establish someone’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It raises the question of whether we should be sentencing people “swiftly,” rather than fairly — or if at all. 

Since 2016, the GVSD has operated mostly behind the scenes, with the exception of a few ride-alongs with news reporters who arranged it with the police department (the ride-along, of course, being one of the purest forms of propaganda imaginable). The police-oriented news coverage, predictably, was like an infomercial for the unit.

Spectrum NY1 News was given enough access by NYPD’s Chief of Detectives that they were able to produce a three-part special on the GVSD in 2019. In part one, NY1 reporter Myles Miller raved that “they get to the bottom of the city’s most violent crimes.” A pretty sweeping statement that seems to have been verified by talking to the NYPD. The segment also suggests that the GVSD also put together the 2014 case against GS9 – the group associated with Brooklyn rapper Bobby Shmurda, whose questionable conviction shook the rap world – though the unit had not been officially announced until 2015. (Don Diva magazine once described the GSVD as a task force of the Detective’s Bureau, which may explain the discrepancy.) 

Part two, a ride along with two detectives, explains that the unit uses social media in piecing together complex cases. Part three ends with NY1 cameras showcasing to its viewers the preparations that members of the GVSD made before carrying out a search warrant at an alleged gang member’s Brooklyn brownstone. Alas, no one was home but that person was eventually arrested and pleaded not guilty. Their case is still in trial nearly four years later without a conviction.

Not to be outdone, another local television station, FOX 5, had a reporter ride along with the GVSD as they executed a gang takedown a few years later in 2021. PIX11 was also given an “exclusive” look into the GVSD in 2021. Reporter Nicole Johnson’s profile of the unit said that the GVSD actually began in 2014 (not 2016) with just 30 officers and now has more than 200. The unit took down 5 “major gangs” in 2021, according to the report. Not even halfway through 2022, the Mayor and NYPD announced that there had already been 16 gang takedowns, which ABC7 attributed to the GVSD. 

During that June press conference, Mayor Adams praised the GVSD members, criticized what he says is a too lenient criminal justice system and instructed the media to write about his concerns: “You guys gotta start writing about this. Just can’t continue. It can’t continue. And in spite of that, in spite of the naysayers, in spite of the attacks, in spite of the tweets, in spite of letting them out, these guys are still doing the job every day, going out there investigating, taking these bad guys off the street.” Adams also went on an odd rant describing targets of police in animalistic terms: “You take the snakes, you take the alphas. Now you have a large number of people who are there. It’s only a matter of time before another alpha steps up.”

Mayor Eric Adams and Chief of Detectives James Essig (Screenshot: NYC Mayor’s Office Youtube channel)

Adams and Chief of Detectives James Essig were joined in the self-congratulatory presser by the GVSD’s commander, Inspector Jason Savino. Savino was once named in a lawsuit for overseeing a false arrest in the Bronx that resulted in a man being violently forced into a psychiatric ward when he wouldn’t admit to a shooting, according to the searchable police misconduct database CAPstat. However, Savino is relatively clean compared to the GVSD’s second-in-command, Deputy Inspector Craig Edelman. 

Edelman came to national attention two years ago during the George Floyd protests when an officer brutally shoved a woman standing on the street into the sidewalk in front of him. The young woman hit her head on the sidewalk curb. Edelman, a supervisor, saw it and kept walking like nothing happened. Previously, as the head of Brooklyn’s 73rd precinct, Edelman had already been a source of controversy in the Brownsville community where residents and local elected officials had worked to have him removed as the commanding officer.

He was eventually removed from that precinct and moved to second-in-command at the GVSD, which puts together complex gang and gun cases, sometimes in collaboration with federal prosecutors. The fit made sense for Edelman, who had previously led one of Brookyn’s Gang Units, but would appear to be more of a promotion for the Long Island resident than any sort of punishment following the controversy in Brownsville and at the Floyd protests. 

In fact, Edelman was now a high-ranking official in a unit that operated throughout the entire city, not just Brownsville. The GVSD answered to no resident councils or local officials, as was the case at the 73rd precinct. More importantly, in a leadership role atop the unit, Edelman would oversee cops being promoted as the tip of the spear to fight gun crime by the Mayor.

Despite Edelman’s headline-making track record, the GVSD composition remains relatively shadowy. The unit has 201 members, including 50 officers and 120 detectives, according to NYPD testimony earlier this year. Most members are generally unknown apart from what’s publicly available on police misconduct websites. The 50-A.org website, a database documenting mostly Civilian Complaint Review Board (a city agency that handles certain types of  allegations of police misconduct) data, appears to have the most comprehensive list of GVSD members. 

That database includes lists for two zones for GSVD: GVSD Zone 01 and GVSD Zone 02. Zone 01 lists 114 GVSD members, most with multiple allegations of misconduct and most seeming to have previously worked in precincts in Brooklyn or Queens. Zone 02 includes 45 members, most of whom also have multiple allegations and most having previously worked at commands in the Bronx or Manhattan.

Notable high scores in Zone 01 belong to Detective Mike Civil, who has 84 allegations of misconduct dating back to 2005 and is named in 14 known lawsuits resulting in at least $112,500 in taxpayer settlements; and Lieutenant Christopher Siani, a former member of the department’s protest-snuffing Strategic Response Group (SRG) who accounts for 46 allegations of misconduct and is named in at least 4 lawsuits. Zone 02’s heavy hitters include Detective Brandon Ravelo (also an ex-SRG member), who was accused by New Yorkers in 61 allegations of misconduct and was named in 10 known lawsuits resulting in a staggering $413,000 in settlements by the city; followed closely by Sergeant Detective Brian Clements (ex-SRG as well), who has 57 allegations and 8 known lawsuits with at least $287,250 in settlements.

Gun Violence Suppression Division (Screenshot: 50-a.org website)

Many of the GVSD members appear to have previously worked at NYPD Gang Units, which, according to testimony earlier this year by NYPD officials, have been phased out to be replaced, naturally, by the GVSD. In a public hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety earlier this year, Chief Essig testified that “the NYPD doesn’t have per se a gang unit anymore. That was the Gun Violence Suppression Unit that we talked about before basically handles gang investigations now.” 

Pressed by a Councilmember’s question about the NYPD’s controversial gang database at the March 18th hearing, Essig said the GVSD units are “not a suppression unit on the street. They have two folds; they assist the local detective squads in solving violent crimes through rigorous canvases. Helping them with witnesses and other evidence and second, building cases with the local DA’s to take off the most violent shooters and homicide perpetrators. That’s their mission. They don’t do suppression on the street, it’s more of an investigation.”

Assuming that the GVSD doesn’t engage in as many street encounters as other parts of the department, as Essig described, the question then becomes: what effect does their long term investigations have on communities of color? The Trace and Gothamist reported earlier this year that the GVSD is one of two units that use the new “Gun Recidivist Investigation Program,” or GRIP list, that was created shortly after Adams took office. A secretive list of alleged so-called trigger pullers would seem to parallel the form and function of the gang database, though refocusing on “guns” rather than simply “gangs.” 

But the gang database has been mired in questions for years – partly due to its apparent role in gang takedowns, like the Bronx 120 takedown of 2016, which have come to be seen as harmful, militarized, dragnet-like operations. A few years after NYPD, federal prosecutors and media celebrated that takedown in 2016 as the largest gang sweep in city history, researchers found the takedown was “overbroad,” that about half of the people indicted weren’t even alleged to be gang members, that most were not even accused of acts of violence and that most had no prior felony convictions. 

Nearly all defendants in that case, like the thousands listed on the gang database, were Black or Hispanic. Will investigations by the GVSD, with its use of the GRIP list and its underlying mission to suppress gangs and crews, replicate that same model?

The Mayor has dedicated his rhetoric and our money to the GVSD. The Mayor’s Blueprint to End Gun Violence, announced in January, calls for “increasing resources for the Gun Violence Suppression Division.” It is the only unit mentioned in the blueprint by name. In 2012, as the political and legal winds turned against the NYPD’s Stop & Frisk tactics, the department doubled the size of its Gang Units, setting the stage for the expansion of the gang database and the proliferation of gang takedowns under Bill de Blasio – a strategy he described as “precision policing” and one that Adams touted in that press conference thanking the GVSD. 

“And we cannot thank them enough for what they’re doing. Precision policing works. It works,” Adams said. “Precision policing, not a wide net taking up anyone who happens to be affiliated with these guys. No. This team they’re going after the shooters, the trigger pullers, the drivers of violence and we just need help. It’s not a hard thing to ask for. We need help.”

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