New York City’s Growing Behavior Gap
The removal of swift consequences for criminal behavior has led to an explosion of violence for even trivial slights.
On Monday, a 23-year-old in Brooklyn was shot, perhaps fatally, over cold French fries.
It began when Lisa Fulmore called her 20-year-old son, Michael Morgan—who has been charged with attempted murder and possession of a deadly weapon—to fume that McDonald’s workers were being disrespectful toward her over her complaints about cold fries. “I was on the phone with my son. I was like, ‘They in this McDonald’s playing with me,’” she said. Morgan then arrived and, after an argument with a McDonald’s employee, allegedly shot him in the neck and ran off. (Morgan’s girlfriend has also been charged for some as-yet-unrevealed involvement.) Did his mother disapprove of his actions? “My son is just saying that he gotta do what he gotta do and the [victim] came after him and whatever happened, happened.”
This absurd pretext for life-taking has chilling echoes of the incident that led to the alleged killing of Austin Simon last month by the now-famous bodega employee Jose Alba. Simon’s girlfriend summoned him to the bodega after Alba rejected her non-functional EBT card and took unpurchased snacks back from the ten-year-old daughter she shares with Simon. “I’m gonna bring my nigga down here, and he gonna fuck you up. My nigga is gonna come down here right now and fuck you up!” she cried before allegedly calling Simon to the utterly unnecessary altercation that ended in his death.
Another instance of fast food-related violence, albeit not deadly, erupted last month when three women in their twenties were filmed ransacking a French fry joint on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—after being asked to pay $1.75 for extra dipping sauce. They gleefully caused $25,000 in property damages and pelted employees with glass bottles and furniture. One worker, Maria Baez, required a staple in her head following the melee.
What has changed such mundane interactions to make them suddenly so fraught with the potential for violence?
A behavior gap is growing among New Yorkers. Most citizens have expectations of behavior set by their families and their communities. When their knishes are cold or baristas act rudely, they get frustrated or angry—but they stay well within a reasonable threshold of pro-social behavior that does not include assault or murder. Some Gothamites, however, rely on the credible presence of law enforcement and the criminal-justice system to set and enforce these expectations of good behavior. For them, the retreat of policing, prosecution, and incarceration has melted the boundaries between civilized and uncivilized behavior.
The city is currently seeing a 42 percent rise in petit larceny, 40 percent rise in robbery, and a nearly 50 percent rise in grand larceny since this time last year. Those whose respect for New York City’s stores, restaurants, and fellow citizens is conditional on the expectation of criminal consequences for bad behavior are now much less inhibited in their conduct.
The decline in swift consequences for antisocial behavior is evident in the city’s plummeting conviction rates. Nearly a decade ago, 63 percent of cases disposed by the Manhattan DA’s office resulted in convictions, and only 12 percent ended in dismissals. Those proportions are now flipped: so far this year, only a third of disposed cases ended in convictions, and nearly half were dismissed.
These changes are even starker when you look at real numbers rather than percentages. In 2013 (the earliest data readily available), convictions were secured for 61,762 Manhattan cases. More than halfway through 2022, the county has managed only 6,902 convictions. These decreases are even more astounding for lower-level crimes. In 2013—when the city had about 25 percent fewer violation offenses than today—Manhattan secured 7,528 convictions for disposed infraction/violation cases. This year, it has gotten 16.
The causes of these huge drop-offs include various policies, many statewide, that make it harder for prosecutors to convict and sentence criminals and for judges to keep them in jail when they seem likely to reoffend pretrial or while on parole.
Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg hasn’t helped. Last January he announced, as his first order of business, that robbing a store with a dangerous weapon would no longer be charged as a felony, only as a misdemeanor—a category of cases for which convictions over the past 11 years fell by over 90 percent. Bragg walked back that language slightly, but he has still concretely reduced charging (and therefore also bail-eligibility) expectations for violent stealing.
Given such a remote likelihood of punishment, doing the wrong thing in Big Apple eateries and shops has become de rigueur. Shoplifting is so endemic that pharmacies are locking down more of their products—even SPAM—as the only way to keep thieves from walking off with them.
Once it’s clear that there are no criminal justice guardrails in effect, those restrained by neither family nor community norms feel emboldened to commit the worst kinds of violent acts for even trivial causes.
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