It’s an article of faith among New York City’s progressive leadership that punishment does not deter crime and that putting criminals in jail is at least as evil as whatever they did to get there. From this perspective, sending someone to jail is the worst thing that society can do: it not only destroys the life of the perpetrator but also creates a false sense of accomplishment, while ignoring the socioeconomic “root causes” of crime.
We’ve heard versions of this argument for years. In 2012, now Public Advocate and then-councilmember Jumaane Williams filed legislation insisting that the police stop arresting people for littering or sleeping on the subway on the grounds that, “in addition to being very disruptive, an arrest can cause significant stress, financial hardship, loss of employment and difficulty in finding employment, among other things.”
Back then, such a view was a fringe position; nine years later, it’s practically the law. New York City has radically decriminalized “quality of life” offenses, from littering to public urination to fare evasion, largely on the principle that arresting people is never the answer. In the summer of 2020, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice boasted that “the number of New Yorkers held in NYC jails has plummeted, shrinking by 27% in ten weeks, a steeper population decline than in all of last year,” bringing the city’s incarcerated population down to the lowest level since 1946. This would be salutary if it reflected a falling crime rate, but the release en masse of prisoners, driven by concern about Covid-19, came at a moment when murders and shootings were rising more quickly than ever recorded before. When incarceration is conceptually decoupled from crime, politicians are free to boast about emptying jails.
The latest twist on the premise that jail is worse than crime is the notion that calling the police is itself a form of violence. Since, on this view, the police routinely commit brutality against black people, and interactions with police frequently result in the death of black men, it is unconscionable to call the police in most situations, especially when it may involve entwining a black life with law enforcement. In fact, it may be tantamount to ordering a black person’s execution. Alvin Bragg, the likely new Manhattan district attorney—who opposes jail time for people convicted of “violent felonies” (his quotation marks)—cautions that calling the police on black people risks “the police shooting of another black man.”
To minimize police intervention, advocates have called for treating violent crime involving guns as a public-health issue, akin to the campaign against smoking that reduced cigarette usage and the incidence of lung cancer. Mary Bassett, former NYC health commissioner, demanded “community-based interventions” to deal with shootings, employing “the use of ‘credible messengers’ and community mobilization techniques that aim to mediate conflicts between individuals and groups and prevent retaliatory violence before it occurs.”
Such “violence interruption” programs receive significant funding and get reintroduced every year as an innovative solution to violent crime. Claims that these efforts work are inevitably based on studies of tiny catchment areas that provide limited evidence for replicability of the model. Mayor Bill de Blasio has been promising a new rollout of more “Cure Violence” practitioners since July 2020, as shootings and murders continue to climb.
At the same time, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, the Democratic mayoral nominee, urged Brooklynites bothered by illegal fireworks not to call the police. “We have left the place of 911 being the response for everything in our city,” he said last year, instead insisting that residents should “go talk to the young people or the people on your block who are using fireworks” and ask them to stop. One woman who took his advice was murdered for her trouble.
When New Yorkers of Asian descent were being attacked and beaten routinely on the streets, de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, advised witnesses to violent hate crimes to “just try interrupting it” by “distracting” the perpetrator—for instance, by asking the victim of an ongoing beating to tell you the current time. “This is risky,” she concluded, after encouraging bystanders to intervene “physically.” At no time does the mayor’s wife advise people to call the police.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a similar plea in regard to anti-Semitic violence associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, asking people to “take NYC’s free, 1hr bystander intervention course.” According to the website, “the trainings explore the meaning of safety, of being an effective ally, and how identity plays a role in the ways we choose to intervene.”
The resistance to calling the police is based on the premise that a racist institution will impose an inequitable intervention when it responds. But even the bystander-intervention training assumes that the “identity” of the intervenor “plays a role” in the act of intervention; a white person, one presumes, must tread lightly when intervening in a violent attack perpetrated by a nonwhite, lest racist modes of defusing tension intrude and replicate the racist structures that we seek to avoid.
Crime is a problem to urban progressives, but apparently not for the reasons that bother everyone else—that crime victimizes people and has huge costs. The problem, from the progressive standpoint, is that the race of many perpetrators is a political inconvenience.
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