When I learned that an alleged shoplifter was stabbed to death Thursday by a drugstore clerk in Times Square, I was surprised only that the killing had happened at the CVS at Broadway and 49th Street, not at the Duane Reade at Broadway and 50th Street. Over more than three years, since New York’s criminal-justice “reforms” collided with pandemic dislocations, this stretch of Broadway and the surrounding blocks and subway stations have become a magnet for disorder and danger. That a nearby resident—me—must weigh up the relative dangers of shopping at or even walking by one store rather than the other says a lot about New York’s deterioration.
The numbers show that supposedly minor shoplifting has become a crisis, one stemming from changes to New York criminal law and in how New York prosecutes that law. In 2019, the New York legislature and then-governor Andrew Cuomo reformed state criminal-justice laws to ensure that virtually no repeat shoplifters, whether suspected or convicted, go to jail awaiting trial. In 2022, new Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg said that no matter what the law said, he wouldn’t prosecute shoplifting, anyway. A person who “shoplifts and makes a minimal threat to a store employee while leaving . . . pose[s] no genuine risk,” he directed staffers upon taking office.
Since then, petty theft has exploded in New York’s Midtown North precinct, where both the Duane Reade and the CVS are located. In 2019, for the first half of the year, Midtown North recorded 979 petit larcenies (generally, shoplifting of minor items). By last year, they had reached 1,161, and this year, they are at 1,331.
That’s a 36 percent increase over four years, which is alarming enough—but it also far understates the case. For the first half of this year, for example, the NYPD’s supposedly handy CompStat map shows exactly one petit larceny at the Duane Reade corner of Broadway, and exactly one at the CVS corner of Broadway a block south, on June 6 and February 3, respectively.
These numbers defy reality. Conservatively speaking, a petit larceny happens at each of these locations at least once a day; more realistically, the rate is likely closer to hourly.
Moreover, the numbers can’t show how this shoplifting amnesty has contributed to Midtown West’s decline in public safety, public order, and just plain livability over the past few years. Until last year, the northern area of Times Square was home to three competing drugstores. Until early 2020, all three were unremarkable, serviceable locations. They were ubiquitous chain drugstores: a Rite Aid at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, a decades-old mainstay; the Duane Reade a block east, another longtime fixture; and the CVS, the newest addition, a block south. You went in, grabbed what you wanted off the shelf, whether it be toothpaste or nail clippers, exchanged pleasantries with the clerk while paying, and left. Maybe you just ran in to use the ATM to get cash.
Early in the pandemic, going to the Rite Aid, the store closest to me (almost directly underneath my home), stopped being an unremarkable experience. The store started locking everything up. I had to ask the clerk to unlock the deodorant, then the toothpaste. Maybe the store had always had a security guard, and maybe, like most retailers before 2020, it hadn’t; I had never noticed either way. Now, there he was, firmly and conspicuously stationed at the sliding doors.
His presence wasn’t enough to deter mass shoplifting. By early 2022, the store, plagued by profit-killing theft, had shuttered. It remains a half-block empty hulk, a vast space outside of which vagrants can panhandle and sleep unmolested by commercial activity. One of its glass doors is now covered by a formidable metal security gate.
After the Rite Aid closed, the Duane Reade at 50th and Broadway became the drugstore closest to my house, 450 feet away. Walgreens, which owns Duane Reade, a 63-year-old New York institution, is doing its best, and the clerks at the Duane Reade are friendly and polite under trying circumstances.
But this store, too, has become a no-go zone. It’s not uncommon—or, at least, it wasn’t last year, when I gave up on going there—to see two shoplifters simultaneously going about their business, casually stealing energy drinks or ice cream to resell. Sometimes, the security guard would, understandably, just watch; sometimes, he would say something like, “You know you’re not supposed to be doing this”; sometimes, he would head off a presumably known repeat thief before he entered the store.
It’s a good idea, as a customer, to give shoplifters a wide berth. They tend toward paranoia, even if you have no intention of attempting to make a citizen’s arrest or calling 911. They’ll snarl or mutter at perceived witnesses nearby. You may have to wait a few minutes in their presence while the clerk unlocks some item that you want to buy.
Even try to use the ATM just inside the store, and you’ll notice someone lurking behind you, calculating the risk-benefit analysis of whether he’ll get away with grabbing your cash. Experience this often enough, and you’ll stop using the ATM.
It’s even gotten iffy just to walk by the Duane Reade: a disorderly environment creates danger, and vice versa. The building housing the store has been covered in scaffolding for years—long predating the pandemic—despite no apparent construction going on, and despite city laws governing how long scaffolding can stay up.
The scaffolding provides a handy shelter for the shoplifting crowd, for illegal vendors of counterfeit luxury pocketbooks and watches, and for other vagrants. Last weekend, a man sat underneath, nodding off in a discarded office chair; another lay slumped on the sidewalk. The area is constantly littered with trash, either discarded by vagrants or dumped from nearby trash cans as scavengers look for something valuable. The vagrants, all men, argue with each other, with the Duane Reade guard, and with other area denizens.
The criminals now attracted to the area can become violent. A year and a half ago, I walked through the aftermath of a non-fatal stabbing at this corner, when a street vendor suffered injury as he fought back against an armed robber. Bloody clothes added to the area litter. This past Sunday, when I took pictures of this disorder from several feet away, a counterfeit-goods vendor approached me, tried to grab my phone, and snarled at me to leave (I did).
The subway stations nearby now serve as arrival and departure conduits for those attracted to Times Square’s rich pickings of drugstores—thieves to earn cash, drug dealers to buy drugs with such cash. The stations have become more violent. Earlier this year, a drug addict randomly attacked a man at the 50th Street E train stop.
And last Thursday, all this resulted in a death, ironically at the one area drugstore that has managed, throughout the chaos, to maintain a clean, pleasant, orderly environment. Since the Rite Aid closed and after several bad experiences in the Duane Reade, I have used the CVS at 49th Street every time, even though it is farther away. It has seemed more like a normal, pre-2020 drugstore.
Last Thursday, though, just after midnight, 50-year-old Charles Brito entered the CVS, allegedly stealing energy drinks. In doing so, Brito repeatedly punched a 46-year-old store clerk, Scotty Enoe, according to Enoe’s account. Enoe stabbed him to death. Now, Enoe, a gainfully employed man who reached middle age with no criminal record, faces a murder rap. He sits at Rikers Island on a $100,000 bail request.
His case is just the latest in at least four killings over late spring and early summer in which the accused killer has claimed self-defense in a violent incident stemming from supposedly minor disorder. In two of these cases, grand juries have agreed with the self-defense claims, declining to indict the accused killers; a third defendant, Daniel Penny, who killed Jordan Neely, a severely mentally ill and disruptive homeless man, on a subway in May, awaits trial.
New York City could have prevented all four of these crimes by doing what it used to do: policing disorder before it escalates to violence.
Brito, the deceased individual in the CVS case, was well known to police and prosecutors. Days before his stabbing death, police had arrested him for shoplifting at a different CVS; he was stealing $125 of items, most likely to resell. This year, Brito had repeatedly stolen small items from Manhattan CVS stores, only to be released, either on low or no bail. In January, Brito violently snatched a purse from a woman walking on Sixth Avenue in Midtown, but he was set to serve no jail time in a plea bargain in that case. The 49th Street CVS at which Brito met his grim end was familiar to him; Enoe’s lawyer claims that Brito had repeatedly threatened employees when they tried to prevent him from stealing.
Progressive architects of New York’s post-2019 criminal-justice regime, from state lawmakers to DA Bragg, claim that they want to keep minority men out of prison. Now, one is dead, and another sits in a failing jail, hoping that a grand jury refuses to indict him for murder. This is progress?
Top Photo by Leonardo Munoz/VIEWpress