New York’s Crime Problem is a Self-Inflicted Wound — and a Warning for Other Cities
New York City isn’t the hellscape that some anti-progressives on the right sometimes hyperbolize. Compared to the dark days of the late 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, New York is much safer, overall.
But streets, subways, and parks have seen more and more disorder. And there’s no getting around the fact that, despite modest declines in shootings and homicides this year and last, the data show that people and property are both much less safe in the Big Apple than they were a few short years ago.
This is a problem — one that was politically created, and one that should serve as a cautionary tale for our nation’s other big cities.
Here’s what we mean:
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After a sharp decline in crime across the board that began in the mid-1990s (when one of us took the helm of the NYPD, which counted the other’s father among its detectives), New York became the safest big city in the world by the turn of the century. We had come a long way from the dark, frightening urban landscape depicted in films like Death Wish, The Warriors and New Jack City.
What was even more remarkable was that we had done so in just a few years. The sharp decline in both crime and visible disorder had many causes. Large-scale social phenomena are complex and rarely lend themselves to simple explanations. But you can be sure that the city’s investments in better, and more aggressively, policing streets, subways and other public spaces was a big part of it. So, too, was the fact that when cops caught a crook, they could be confident that he would be prosecuted and, if convicted of a serious offense, locked up for more than just a few days or months.
The headline of that much longer story was that New York went from more than 2,200 murders in 1990 to fewer than 300 by 2017. But the city now may be a victim of its own success. Despite those unprecedented gains in public safety — a city’s most precious commodity — another story had been gaining purchase in newsrooms, university classrooms, and in many other mainstream institutions: New York’s crime decline wasn’t an unalloyed good. The city’s victory over crime was tainted by police brutality, mass-incarceration, and racial disparities in enforcement.
The increasing popularity of this alternative story of New York’s legacy — one that ignored declining use-of-force rates, modest but steady declines in incarceration, and the wildly unequal distribution of the benefits associated with a 90% decline in homicide over the course of a single generation — was extremely consequential insofar as it catapulted a once-fringe criminal justice and police reform movement into the political stratosphere. The movement quickly began to rack up wins.
The list is dizzying.
A successful class action lawsuit filed against the NYPD for its use of Terry stops (colloquially known as “Stop, Question, and Frisk”) resulted in a massive decline — somewhere on the order of 80% to 90% over several years — in stops reported by the department, which would operate under a corporate monitor for years. A few years earlier, New York State dismantled the now-infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws.
Then, in no particular order, we got:
- bail reform;
- discovery reform;
- Raise The Age;
- Less Is More;
- the Right To Know Act;
- the “Diaphragm Law”;
- the codification of a plan to close Rikers Island and cap the jail population at a little more than half of what it is today;
- a successful class-action lawsuit that led to a monitorship of the city’s Department of Correction (as well as to reforms to the rules of engagement for jail guards);
- administrative bans on solitary confinement;
- a slew of statewide police reforms regarding (among other things) chokeholds, body-worn cameras, the publication of disciplinary records, and new rules for cases involving some fatal police shootings;
- a slew of citywide police reforms, including an end-run around qualified immunity, an emphasis on hiring police officers living in the city versus its surrounding suburbs, and reducing the police commissioner’s discretion over officer discipline;
- the disbanding of street-level NYPD units (such as homeless outreach, anti-crime, and “buy-and-bust” teams) focused on policing disorder and crime hotspots;
- a billion-dollar defunding measure that led to the cancellation of at least one NYPD academy class.
The list goes on, and it includes the legalization of recreational marijuana, the expansion of a youth supervised-release program, the closure of 18 state correctional facilities by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the recent elections of progressive prosecutors in Brooklyn and Manhattan — each of whom used their administrative authority to make sweeping changes, such as adopting broad non-prosecution policies, imposing caps on sentences, and decreasing barriers to parole.
In some ways, the reforms have worked. The state’s prison and jail populations have declined sharply in recent years — as have the number of stops and arrests made by the NYPD. The rates at which felony arrests result in conviction have fallen, and criminal-case dismissal rates have risen.
In other ways, these initiatives have, predictably, failed — at least when measured by what ordinary New Yorkers really care about: the level of crime, and the visible signs of disorder that inform the public’s perception of how safe streets really are.
Though down 11% compared to 2021, New York City murders were still 48% higher in 2022 than in 2017, 46% higher than in 2018, and 35% higher than 2019 — the year before shootings in the city nearly doubled. Shootings decreased 17% in 2022, but were still 66% higher than in 2019. And notwithstanding the recent downturn in murders and shootings, New York City saw a 22% spike, year-over-year, in index offenses (a category of offenses constituted by murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, grand larceny, motor vehicle theft, and burglary) last year. Through May 7 of this year, the city’s year-to-date index crime total is slightly higher than it was at this point in 2022, according to NYPD's CompStat, which stands for "comparison statistics" and allows officials to track data block-by-block in near-real time.
In addition to the reports of serious crime, recent years have also seen spikes in calls to the city’s 3-1-1 hotline for issues like feces on the street, homeless encampments, noise and foul odors (often from human waste). New Yorkers have seen more fare evasion, and open-air drug use — particularly (but not exclusively) marijuana.
So, yes, crime and disorder are very real problems for New Yorkers. Just ask them. This is especially true for the already disadvantaged neighborhoods the progressives responsible for the about-face on criminal justice policy say they care so much about. The Bronx, while home to about 17% of the city’s population, has seen more than 29% of its murders and 27% of its shootings so far this year, according to the CompStat reports for City and Bronx through May 7th. And in 2021— the most recent data published by the NYPD — 96.9% of shooting victims were either black or Hispanic … in a city that is nowhere near 96.9% black and Hispanic.
Some people say they can feel the tide turning, but we’re not so sure. The city council, rather than reconsidering the jail population cap of 3,300, just proposed legislation to help secure early releases in order to get the jail population down to that number from the nearly 6,000 people being held in the city’s jails now. Nor has Albany done much of anything to address the problems created by recent statewide reforms. In fact, some of our esteemed legislators up north are pushing to move us even further down the road we’re on, proposing legislation to allow even the most violent convicted felons to have their sentences considered for reductions. Too many of those with power still don’t get it.
New Yorkers need the adults in the room to hit the “Refresh” button on the political discourse around crime, disorder, policing, and criminal justice. What they need is a political discourse in which rhetoric takes a backseat to data — a discourse that doesn’t tell straphangers not to believe their lying eyes as they watch someone urinate in a subway station elevator. They also need leaders with better ideas about what a more responsible reform program should look like.
Let’s hope things don’t have to get much worse for that to happen.
Rafael A. Mangual is the Nick Ohnell fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and the author of “Criminal (In)Justice.” William J. Bratton is a twice-former commissioner of the NYPD and author of “The Profession.”
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