For Rohan Levy, the line between life and death came down to a teenage gunman who mistook the 15-year-old boy’s friend for a rival gang member.
The charismatic Brooklyn teen, with his bright smile and exuberant laugh, was joking with two friends just a half block from home when he was mortally wounded by four bullets from a .380-caliber pistol last Feb. 20. One of his friends, police say, was wearing red pants — leading to the incorrect assumption that Rohan’s pal was a Bloods gang member.
“You never think you’re going to get shot for no reason whatsoever,” said Rohan’s uncle Patrick Smith, 57. “But living in Brooklyn, bullets have no names and no eyes.”
In many ways, Rohan, an aspiring architect, was an unlikely homicide victim. But records show the black teen fits what police and activists say is a disturbing pattern in the city and nationwide.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — based on 2014 data — reported that homicide was the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 34.
Among the 21 New York City teenagers who died violently over the past 12 months, all of them were black or Hispanic. All but one were male, and 90% were killed by a gun. Some, like Rohan, were bystanders, while others were themselves involved in crime or victims of neighborhood beefs that spiraled out of control.
No matter the circumstances, the slain youths shared a common reality: growing up in impoverished communities where the threat of violence — or even death — remains as constant as the subway trains running down the tracks.
Although violent crime across the city continues to plummet — there were 290 homicides in 2017 compared with 335 in 2016 — violence among young people continues to be a stubborn problem.
In 2017, 24% of all homicides victims in the city were between 15 and 24 years old. The NYPD did not provide equivalent data for previous years.
The murder of the unarmed Rohan by a 17-year-old shooter devastated his relatives — many of them longtime residents of East Flatbush, where the shooting occurred.
Rohan was shot on an unseasonably warm February afternoon, with the laughter and shrieks of children echoing from sidewalk to sidewalk. There was no school, because it was Presidents’ Day. Parents kept a watchful eye from their porches. A man washed his car in the midday sun.
Rohan had never been in trouble with the police — or anyone except his mother. In eighth grade, he decided he wanted to be an architect and was scheduled to start an internship at a large city firm this past summer.
His killer emerged from a gold Honda Accord without warning as Rohan, a headphone in one ear, walked with his friends. The alleged shooter, busted in April, grew up in Rohan’s neighborhood, but police say they didn’t know each other. The suspect’s accomplices are still being sought.
“With young kids, the killer probably hasn’t driven cross-country or gone across the Atlantic on a trip,” said Dermot Shea, NYPD chief of crime control strategies. “He’s probably right in Brooklyn.”
Even as the NYPD reports crime at record lows, in the city’s most underserved communities, violence is a persistent fear.
A 2014-16 study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice focused on men ages 18 to 24 at community centers in Harlem; East New York, Brooklyn; South Jamaica, Queens, and the South Bronx found 43% had been stabbed or shot at.
Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay, said access to weapons among young men inured to violence and living in poverty can lead to deadly results.
“Think about yourself and some dumb things you did when you were a teenager,” said Butts. “And then imagine living in Brownsville and walking around with a pistol in your pocket all the time. You’re 17 years old, you think you’re invulnerable, and you pull that weapon out.”
There may be signs a teenager is prone to violence — poor performance in school, trouble at home, a series of conflicts escalating in severity or arrests involving a gun. But Shea said violence among teenagers over petty conflicts is difficult to predict.
“With kids, it’s really over nothing,” he said. “It’s the Sharks and the Jets. The front of the building versus the back of the building. Keeping up historical beefs. Sometimes kids don’t understand what they’re doing, and by the time they do, it’s too late.”
While some shootings are preceded by snap judgments, others follow long-simmering feuds, conflicts which are often escalated by peer pressure.
“The attitude is, ‘If you hurt one of my people, we have to retaliate,’ ” said Sheyla Delgado, deputy director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay. “It’s not about what I want to do, but how my friends expect me to react.”
A series of brawls between East Harlem crews raised plenty of red flags in the Johnson Houses and the nearby Lehman Houses.
But the warning signs weren’t enough to save Lewis Encarnacion, 17, a tenacious boxer who was fiercely loyal to his friends.
He feared the end was near after an enemy he’d beaten up in a Labor Day fight opened fire on him eight days later. The next day, he was shot to death.