The shooting death of one-year-old Davell Gardner at a barbecue in Brooklyn last Sunday evening was surely heartbreaking. It was also another ominous data point in a growing body of statistical evidence indicating that New York City, after a long era of peace, is turning violent.
In June alone some 270 people were shot in the city, a 154 per cent increase from a year earlier. July is not looking any better. Over the recent July 4th holiday weekend, 64 people were shot. Seventeen more were shot on Monday, a day after Gardner’s death. Those shootings have contributed to a 23 per cent increase in homicides so far this year. Burglary is also soaring.
"We're starting to see significant upticks in crime – particularly in violence. And it could get worse," Dermot Shea, the police commissioner, told a recent press briefing.
Lawrence Byrne, former head lawyer for the police department, was more outspoken. "There's a slaughter going on in the streets of New York and the blood runs deep!" Byrne declared on the Cats at Night radio programme.
That assessment is hardly universal. Crime rates often fluctuate and New York City remains safer than it has been in decades. It has made a habit in recent years of frustrating predictions that violence is poised to explode following moves by the city’s progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, to ease police enforcement.
Still, the rash of gun violence is unnerving a city already shaken by the plague of coronavirus, which has killed more than 20,000 residents and brought the economy to a standstill.
It has reawakened a fear – never far from the surface for longtime residents – of a return to the “bad old days” of the 1970s and 1980s, when crime and violence were rampant and neighbourhoods became “no-go” zones.
The city's success at taming that violence, beginning in the mid-1990s under Rudolph Giuliani as mayor, was not only a matter of life and death – many in the business community credit it with setting the stage for its economic resurgence.
The recent rise in shootings is unfolding against the backdrop of a contentious debate on policing hastened by the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd. Black Lives Matter and other progressive groups are calling to "defund" the police. In New York City, they rallied support last month for a $1 billion (€875 million) cut to the force's $6 billion budget.
But the escalating violence has caused some black city council members, whose constituents have been worst affected, to question the wisdom of removing the police from their neighbourhoods.
"They don't want to see excessive force. They don't want to see cops putting their knees in our necks. But they want to be safe," Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx's 16th Council District said of her residents.
Richard Aborn, a former prosecutor who has been called to investigate the police in the past and is president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, noted that the murder rate was still a fraction of where it was as recently as 1993, when nearly 2,000 people were killed.
Still, Aborn did not believe that would offer much comfort to residents who have grown accustomed to living in a city that has experienced steady declines in crime for more than 20 years and which now relishes its status as “the safest big city in America.”
“Your tolerance for higher crime rates is not what it was when the city was at 2,000 murders [a year]. Trust me,” he said.
Aborn also predicted that the violence was likely to worsen over the summer months, when crime tends to increase. “I’m worried,” he said. “Is it possible it sort of sputters out and New York goes back to normal? It’s possible, but I don’t want to wait around to find out.”
As ever, the cause of the violence is a matter of debate – one that is taking place during a politicised fight over policing reform. Most experts believe it is likely to be a stew of factors that includes the great uncertainty of coronavirus.
Shea cites, among other factors, changes to the city’s bail laws, which have made it harder for authorities to detain suspects, pending trial, for all but the most serious crimes. The reform, which went into effect in January, is part of a broader push to reduce the city’s prison population. The law has since been tightened – although not as much as police and prosecutors would like.
“You can’t keep people safe without keeping bad, dangerous people off the streets,” Shea complained.
Others are less convinced, noting that the city had been reducing enforcement and arrests since De Blasio took office in 2014 – while still seeing crime fall. One of De Blasio's main campaign promises was to end the "stop-and-frisk" searches of young – overwhelmingly black and Hispanic – men that were the hallmark of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.
Coronavirus prompted the city to grant compassionate leave to thousands of inmates. It has also frozen the court system, making it difficult to secure indictments and bring prosecutions.
The virus has had other effects. It has depleted the force by infecting many officers. It has also forced the cancellation of summer programmes for youths and – as De Blasio has repeatedly emphasised – further impoverished low-income families.
Patrick Sharkey, a Princeton sociologist and author of Uneasy Peace, a book on the city's crime decline, noted that New York City is one of several cities to see rising crime following Floyd's killing.
The suspicion is that police have retreated under the scrutiny of public protests while residents may have stopped co-operating with forces they no longer see as legitimate. “When police step back, it destabilises communities,” Sharkey said. “I think that’s going on in a number of cities right now.”
Under pressure from progressive activists, De Blasio has called for a “grassroots” response that leans heavily on community figures – not officers – to restore order.
The success of that initiative may shape the larger debate on policing reform. While anti-police sentiment is simmering across the city, fuelled by images of the violent tactics employed against protesters, that could change if New Yorkers become convinced that a short-term spike in violence is part of a long-term trend. With few other institutions ready to shoulder the burden, Sharkey argued, they may yet demand more police.
“As violence increases, Americans become more punitive in their attitudes and call for more policing,” he said. “This aggressive, brute-force policing didn’t come out of nowhere.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020