New York remains the safest big city in America, but a recent spate of high-profile, vicious crimes has Gotham—at least that part of it worried about what the post-Bloomberg era might bring—wondering if the renaissance of the last two decades has run its course. That renaissance was given life by the policing reforms of the mid-nineties, which the likely next mayor and a radical-progressive city council have repeatedly promised to undermine. For New Yorkers with some historical memory, the city seems to be at an inflection point. The good times may finally be over.
Twenty-five years ago, New York’s law-abiding citizens lived on a knife-edge. Street crime was so commonplace that people carried extra cash—“mugging money”—when they stepped out, to avoid getting caught empty-handed and perhaps triggering the ire of a violent shakedown artist. It was almost impossible to walk through a public park without being propositioned to buy drugs. A host of petty crimes—from fare-jumping to public intoxication—went unpunished by the police. It was a city governed by fear.
One of the Giuliani era’s great insights was that society’s criminal element is in a kind of running dialogue with the police. The cops signal to the bad guys what they’re willing to tolerate in terms of criminal behavior, and the bad guys adjust accordingly. This was the spirit behind the Broken Windows theory developed by scholar James Q. Wilson and criminologist George Kelling. When word got around that the cops wouldn’t let you urinate on the sidewalk anymore, or spray-paint graffiti in the subways, or carry a gun around in your waistband, the bad guys stopped doing these things. It didn’t always work perfectly and the cops occasionally abused their power—in 1997, rogue cop Justin Volpe is alleged to have said it was “Giuliani time” while torturing Abner Louima inside Brooklyn’s 70th precinct station house. But such incidents were rare, and few people pine for a return to the days of the squeegee men.
In early August, however, federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin began rolling back the Giuliani policing reforms, declaring the NYPD’s stop-question-and-frisk tactic unconstitutional and calling for a federal monitor to oversee broad reforms to the department’s procedures. NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly went on NBC’s Meet the Press to warn that “violent crime will go up” as a result of the ruling. In late August, the New York City Council passed two bills designed to clip the NYPD’s wings even further, overriding Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vetoes of both. The New York Times reported that the bills “marked a decisive swing of the pendulum toward reining in the practices of officers and the policies of their leaders.”
Just as Kelling and Wilson might have predicted, the criminals appear to have gotten the message. In the month after the Scheindlin ruling, as the New York Post reported, the city experienced a spike in gun-related violence. A 27-year-old opened fire at a basketball tournament in the Bronx in late August; a three-year-old boy was among the wounded. One-year-old Antiq Hennis was shot and killed on the first day of September as he sat in his stroller in Brownsville, Brooklyn; the bullets were allegedly intended for his father, a self-confessed “super gangbanger,” who was standing nearby. In a singularly bloody Friday night in early October, four people were killed across the city and another five wounded in gun-related crimes.
The mayhem has not been confined to gun violence. On the first day of October, a resident of a Harlem homeless shelter went on an early-morning stabbing rampage with a pair of scissors in Riverside Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, wounding a one-year-old boy and his father as well as three other victims, including a female jogger who was slashed across the neck. The crime recalled a time when the homeless—often drug-addicted, criminally insane, or both—ruled the city’s parks and public spaces.
As shocking as these incidents were, perhaps no recent crime has been as unnerving for New Yorkers as the late-September Sunday afternoon attack on 33-year-old Alexian Lien by a mob of motorcyclists, who chased him for miles along the West Side Highway, dragged him from his car, and brutally beat him in front of his wife and two-year-old daughter. The couple was celebrating their wedding anniversary when they were surrounded by the flash mob of bikers—including at least one undercover NYPD officer, subsequently arrested for participating in the attack. Incidental contact between the victim’s car and one of the biker’s rear tires set off the savage incident, which was videotaped and posted online.
Children being shot on the street, maniacs slashing joggers in the park, lawlessness on the highways—a visitor could be forgiven for thinking that it’s 1977 all over again in the Big Apple. New York’s policing revolution did not create a perfect city. A looming fiscal crisis threatens to drag the next mayor into a protracted battle with the city’s unionized work force; the public schools continue to underperform. But an increase in crime would do more than anything else to drag New York back to the bleak days of the seventies and eighties.