New York City has finally closed the book on an abysmal year. It goes without saying that the biggest challenge for residents is still the Covid-19 pandemic, which has mercilessly pummeled the public and the economy. However, with vaccinations underway, we can all see the light at the end of that particular tunnel.
The sharp rise in homicides and shootings has been the city’s second-biggest challenge. But the way forward is less clear, and the prospects for a better 2021 are much dimmer.
Through Dec. 27, New York City’s 447 homicides and 1,518 shootings represent respective year-to-date increases of 41 percent and 97.4 percent from 2019’s numbers. New Yorkers haven’t seen a year-over-year spike in homicides anywhere near this large since the early 1970s. (Other cities around the country have also seen gun violence surge this year.)
This regression in public safety in the city has not been evenly distributed. Brooklyn has seen 69 additional homicides and 363 more shootings than it had through the same point in 2019 — respective increases of 69.7 percent and 127.4 percent. Just three of the borough’s 23 precincts — the 73rd, 75th, and 77th — accounted for more than half of Brooklyn’s additional homicides and 40 percent of its additional shootings in 2020. Disparities in public safety persist throughout the entire city. Just 10 of New York’s 77 precincts — home to less than 13 percent of the city’s population — saw 34.2 percent of last year’s homicides, and 39.3 percent of all shootings.
The concentration of serious crime isn’t just geographic; it’s demographic, as well. Blacks and Hispanics have constituted at least 95 percent of the city’s shooting victims every year for more than a decade, representing one of the starkest and most persistent racial disparities in the criminal justice data. Data through October indicates that last year was no exception.
Of course, the data don’t even begin to capture the tragic stories of trauma and loss experienced last year in New York, by far the country’s biggest city. Statistics are poor stand-ins for the lives cut short, the families torn apart, and the innocence stolen from the souls of children — like the 6-year-old girl whose father was gunned down right before her eyes as they crossed a Bronx street, hand-in-hand, in broad daylight. A week later, the city would learn of what seems to be its youngest homicide victim of the year — 1-year-old Davell Gardner Jr., who was hit with a stray bullet while in his stroller during a July cookout in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. As a father to a 1-year-old boy, I can’t even bring myself to imagine the pain Davell’s parents must still be feeling.
How to explain the cause of the sudden spike in shootings and homicides is and will continue to be a point of contention — particularly given criminal justice reform movement’s momentum in New York City and the country at large. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Bronx native, posited back in July that the spike was a function of unemployment brought about by the pandemic. Mayor de Blasio, early last year, suggested the state’s recently enacted bail reform was at least partly to blame.
Representative Ocasio-Cortez is not alone in drawing this line of causation. But while there is a connection between certain socioeconomic indicators and property crime, the same cannot be said for violent crimes like shootings and homicides. Available data on poverty, unemployment and the sort of violence occupying the minds of New Yorkers over the last year undermine the supposition that there is a strong causal relationship among these three phenomena. Barry Latzer, a criminologist and professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, calls this “the crime/adversity mismatch,” writing in his book “The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America” that across the span of American history “no consistent relationship between the extent of a group’s socioeconomic disadvantage and its level of violence is evident.”
Consider the fact that between 2006 and 2009 (which captures the financial crisis that caused a deep recession in New York City), the unemployment rate for working-age Black men — who account for a disproportionately high share of the city’s homicide and shooting victims and perpetrators — nearly doubled, jumping to 17.9 percent from 9 percent. Yet, the number of homicides fell to 471 in ’09 from 596 in ’06, and felony assaults declined to 16,773 from 17,309.
In 2016 — the year before New York City posted a modern-era record-low 292 homicides — the citywide poverty rate was 19.5 percent, almost a full point higher than it was in 1989, the year before the city posted a record-high 2,262 homicides. And in 2016, Black New Yorkers experienced poverty at a lower rate (19.2 percent) than their Hispanic (23.9 percent) and Asian (24.1 percent) counterparts, who accounted for much smaller shares of the city’s gun violence.
Mayor de Blasio may have been closer to the mark: It is plausible that the numerous legislative and administrative policy levers pulled at various points over the last few years have laid the groundwork for the recent upsurge in violence. A few examples:
In Brooklyn, which has borne the brunt of the city’s rise in shootings, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has introduced policies that functionally decriminalize a host of offenses. His office also has prioritized expanding diversion programs — a benefit extended to young gun offenders. And it has adopted a policy of supporting parole bids. Perhaps coincidentally, The New York Post reported in May that Police Department data shows there had been a uptick in shootings involving parolees.
New York State put expansive bail and discovery reforms on the books last year, which followed a major 2017 reform raising the age of criminal responsibility. The 2017 law made it much harder to try 16- and 17-year-old defendants as adults. It also prompted New York City to move teenage inmates off Rikers Island and into the Horizon Juvenile Center, a less-restrictive setting that quickly gave way to a wave of violent brawls.
Then there was the mayor’s 2014 decision to drop the city’s appeal in the litigation surrounding the Police Department’s “stop, question and frisk” practice — which was followed by a sharp decline in pedestrian stops. There was also the 2019 passage of the plan to close the jails on Rikers Island, and cap the city’s jail population at just 3,300 — which is still far below the average daily population in 2020, despite the releases attributable to the new bail reform and efforts to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 within correctional facilities. The city also placed new restrictions on the N.Y.P.D.’s search procedures that went into effect in 2018.
All of these changes have either raised the transaction costs of policing and prosecution, or increased the amount of time repeat offenders are spending on the street. And they have come in the midst of yearslong declines in the state’s jail and prison populations — declines the changes seem calculated to extend, if not accelerate.
It’s true that other places have seen similar spikes in shootings without as much substantial criminal justice reform. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that such reforms aren’t helping to drive the recent uptick in shootings and homicides in New York City. Jurisdictions aren’t equally vulnerable to a rise in crime rates. A quarter-century of consistent crime declines, development and economic growth had fortified New York City against crime. It stands to reason that it would have taken more to begin unraveling the historic progress made in the Big Apple since the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The spike in shootings and homicides does not seem to have slowed the city’s push for decarceration and depolicing, putting the lie to the widely held belief that crime can be easily capitalized on to stunt reform efforts.
What the last several years have borne out is that powerful narratives can be built upon incidents of alleged police misconduct and that these narratives can catalyze substantial shifts in criminal justice policy. Whatever skepticism the spike in shootings and homicides may have engendered about reform efforts, it was clearly eclipsed by the anger that swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody. One indicator of this is the number of mayoral candidates currently promising to “reimagine” policing and criminal justice.
After Mr. Floyd’s death, the City Council passed a $1 billion cut to the N.Y.P.D. budget, resulting in the cancellation of an academy class, which is likely to exacerbate the impact of the force-reduction driven by the sharp rise in retirements last year. The Council also criminalized certain grappling tactics if performed by police during the course of an arrest, and the Police Department disbanded its plainclothes anti-crime teams. This is on top of the police reform bills signed into law by Governor Cuomo in June.
This reality implies real political limits as to what can be done in the near term to address the rise in serious violence. So what might a politically feasible approach to the crime problem in New York City look like?
First, there has to be an urgent effort to replenish the N.Y.P.D.’s ranks, which dropped 7 percent last year. One of the most robust findings in the criminological literature is that more cops means fewer crimes — usually through the mechanism of deterrence. To that end, the department should also be working to maximize officer time on the street by diverting administrative tasks to civilian employees.
On the deterrence front, the city might consider an investment in more CCTV cameras. Serious thought should also be given to expanding the scope of arrestees who will be included in New York City’s DNA database — particularly given the substantial deterrent effects such expansions have been documented to have on crime in other jurisdictions.
The city should consider taking steps to boost clearance rates for serious crimes to maximize the incapacitation benefits derived from the incarceration of the offenders convicted. Steps toward this goal could include increasing detective ranks, addressing the physical environmental factors associated with lower clearance rates, and cutting police response times.
Addressing the many real and valid concerns about the criminal justice system’s excesses is a noble mission. But reforms can have consequences that fall on both sides of the ledger. While there are many questions about the spike in homicides and shootings that remain unanswered, one thing does seem clear: Going too far, too fast could end up hurting precisely the people in whose name reforms have been pursued.
Rafael A. Mangual is a senior fellow and deputy director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.
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