Serious crime continues to rise in New York City. As of March 21, compared with last year, the NYPD has reported eight more homicides (a 12 percent increase) and 63 more shooting incidents (a 40 percent increase) that wounded 69 more people (a 39 percent increase). These numbers are particularly discouraging because, at this time in 2020—a year that ended with a 45 percent spike in murders and a near-doubling of shootings—homicides were down almost 12 percent, and shootings were up just 17 percent compared with 2019. As I have argued in these pages and elsewhere, there is good reason to believe that reforms enacted by city and state officials—which have essentially lowered the transaction costs of criminal offending, while raising those of enforcing the law—at least partly caused this increase. And now, a new round of reforms that the city council passed threatens to fan the flames.
The spike in crime has reverberated throughout the city, but some neighborhoods and groups are getting hit much harder than others. In 2020, 91.4 percent of murder and non-negligent homicide victims were black or Hispanic; they constituted 96.4 percent of shooting victims. Blacks and Hispanics have constituted at least 95 percent of shooting victims every year since at least 2008, when the NYPD first started publishing its crime and enforcement reports. Over the 13 years covered by those reports, an average of 88.2 percent of murder and non-negligent manslaughter victims were blacks and Hispanics. And, uncomfortable as it may be for some to contemplate, they have also constituted the overwhelming majority of shooting and homicide suspects—97.1 percent and 91.1 percent, respectively—since 2008.
Time was when city leaders—even self-described progressives—would trip over themselves to reassure residents that they’d get crime under control before a bloody trend set in. They would propose to fix conditions in vulnerable, mostly minority, neighborhoods, and work to reinforce the police and other elements of the justice system. But times have changed.
Enter the city council’s new package of police reforms, which comes atop the measures passed last summer by the council and state lawmakers. It includes bills that will make policework even costlier by, among other things, increasing the risk that officers will be held personally liable in lawsuits; prohibiting officers from living in the city’s lower-cost suburbs—making it likelier that they will cross paths while off the job with those whom they’ve arrested; and taking officer discipline out of the police commissioner’s hands, turning those decisions over to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
Absent from the city council’s package was anything that could conceivably bring shootings and homicides back down to their recent lows. Rather than draw on the successes of the 1990s and early 2000s, which were achieved largely by the city’s criminal-justice apparatus, leaders have decided that now is the time to embrace even more reform for reform’s sake—to “reimagine” how Gotham approaches safety. What they are proposing is, in essence, an experiment; city residents are the subjects.
The passage of this reform package should put to rest the widely held belief that law-and-order forces can easily capitalize on rises in crime to stunt reform efforts. Wherever the constituency for law and order in New York City currently is, it’s apparently not nearly big or loud enough to give the council and its allies in Albany pause.
What’s happening in New York is just part of a national trend. Chicago saw a 55 percent spike in homicides and shootings last year, yet Democratic lawmakers in Illinois recently passed a similarly misguided package of reforms—one that codified the Windy City’s recent experiment in bail reform in the state’s statute books. Last year, in Minneapolis, lawmakers slashed millions from the police budget amid massive spikes in homicides, shootings, and carjackings. Undeterred by the carnage, some city council members reintroduced a measure to abolish the police department.
Such reforms send a message to those who care about public safety: help is not on the way. The calvary isn’t coming. Deal with it—or, if you have the means, go.
The radical wing of the criminal-justice reform movement has enjoyed enormous legislative and electoral success over the last few years, in New York and elsewhere. Such success owes much to the impression—carefully crafted and nurtured by those leading the movement—that the fight for reform is, à la Public Enemy, a fight against “the power.” David versus Goliath. Meek Mill versus The System. But that’s all just a smokescreen. When the smoke clears, it reveals that those leading the movement to de-police city streets and depopulate jails and prisons are the power. As such, they should be held accountable for their “victories”—and what follows from them.
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