Last weekend, video cameras posted in Times Square captured a scene that has sparked outrage across the city. While struggling to arrest a resisting suspect, two NYPD officers were viciously attacked by at least six other men—all migrants, recently arrived in our “sanctuary city.” They all got away. Not long afterward, police made seven arrests related to the incident, on charges that included assault and robbery (according to reports, one of the officers’ cell phone was stolen during the fight). Adding insult to injury, at least four of the seven attackers have already been released. The attack and the subsequent release of the alleged perpetrators may shock the consciences of many New Yorkers, but anyone surprised by this hasn’t been paying attention.
The sad truth is that this episode reveals exactly what the politicians running Gotham’s city council and the legislature in Albany have invited. For years, my colleagues and I have called attention to the destructive policies that city and state officials have proposed and enacted. We’ve warned that those shifts would embolden offenders, make police more vulnerable, and put residents at risk. The Times Square episode is an amalgam of the obvious and expected effects of just a few of those policies.
New York City mayors and other city leaders have on multiple occasions defended the decision to make the city a “sanctuary”—which includes refusing to assist federal authorities seeking to deport migrants suspected of crimes. As noted in a recent article in City & State, this has been the city’s policy since 2014, and it has been state law since a state appellate court held as much in 2018.
The city council has also criminalized the use of basic police grappling techniques through the “diaphragm law,” which, on pain of criminal prosecution, prohibits the placement by cops of any pressure on the diaphragm, chest, or back of even actively resisting suspects, or otherwise restricting their airflow. The law was initially thrown out on constitutional grounds, but a state appellate court overturned that ruling in 2022. Handcuffing a grown man who is forcefully resisting is not easy, even when officers outnumber him. Yet, we ask our police to try to win these fights without running afoul of these restrictions—even when they’re surrounded by others willing to use violence to thwart the arrest.
In 2019, Albany lawmakers, with the approval of then-New York governor Andrew Cuomo, enacted a bail law that significantly expanded the number of offenders entitled to pretrial release, while maintaining New York’s status as the only state in America that prohibits the pretrial detention of defendants on public-safety grounds. Pretrial detention is only potentially on the table for defendants whose cases are eligible for remand or the imposition of bail that is too high for them to make. But the decision to remand or impose bail can only be based on flight risk. The court cannot take notice of even an obvious risk that the accused will reoffend if released.
Given these policies, is it surprising that a group of migrant men were able to overpower two cops, get arrested for assault and robbery, and wind up back on the street within hours? This is exactly the situation that those pushing to “reimagine” public safety in New York have invited. Might this prove the last straw? For my part, I doubt it: New Yorkers have continued to endure anger-inducing incidents relating to the migrant crisis and the broader effort to depolice and decarcerate in New York. We’ve seen police officers get brutalized. We’ve seen brazen, unapologetic, and prolific offenders waltz out of the courthouse, knowing full well they’ll shortly return to their criminal ways. Yes, New Yorkers express disapproval at these episodes. But then everyone moves on, and nothing changes.
Not even the brutal upstate murder of Keaira Bennefield—shot dead by her husband, prosecutors allege, after he was released following his arrest for a domestic assault on her—resulted in a saner bail policy. That failure held, despite Bennefield’s being so aware of the risk to her own life that she reportedly was wearing a bulletproof vest when killed. She could see what was coming from a mile away. The law required the judiciary to blind itself to that threat. Once again, the story ignited outrage, but it didn’t change anything.
The truth is, the everyday New Yorkers upset over the insanity of the past several years haven’t shown up at the polls. They haven’t insisted that their values be represented in the halls of power. That apathy is how depolicing and decarceration advocates have racked up so many wins in recent years. That won’t change until the justified anger and frustration New Yorkers feel when confronted with these examples of their city falling into disorder translate into action. Ultimately, we have only ourselves to blame.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images