Mayor Bill de Blasio has touted recent downward trends in violent crime in New York as evidence that his progressive governance is working. Last year, New York reported fewer murders than at any time since the early 1950s, and the city has a good shot at doing even better this year. But while the streets may be safe, a different reality pertains in homeless shelters and public schools. Levels of crime and disorder are disturbingly high in schools and shelters, though de Blasio has modified reporting protocols in ways that make a full accounting of his administration’s safety record all but impossible.
Consisting of hundreds of facilities operated mainly by nonprofit organizations, the shelter system is city government’s frontline response to the escalating homelessness crisis. Shelter costs are projected to reach almost $2 billion in the next fiscal year. Grim tragedies in and around the shelters have made news, including stabbings, violent attacks on children, and even a “near-decapitation.” In February, the New York Daily News revealed that, as part of changes to how it reports on crime and disorder in the shelters, the city had ceased disclosing arrest totals. These changes were necessary, the city subsequently explained, because shelter arrest data would expose “the individuals residing at specific . . . locations to a heightened level of scrutiny and stigma.” The new disclosure standards yielded results that are impossible to credit. For example, last year, under the new guidelines, only 29 “critical incidents” were reported at the Bedford-Atlantic Armory shelter, one of the system’s largest and most notorious facilities. Internal records, by contrast, showed 89 arrests and 865 service calls for shelter-safety officers.
The Daily News’s reporting has prompted some administration backtracking. Late last month, the city announced that the NYPD would begin making “precinct level shelter arrest data” available. But Albany has launched an investigation into whether the city has been complying with state disclosure requirements relating to crime in shelters. Looking to expand the shelter system, de Blasio is waging a public relations campaign to assure community groups that new shelters won’t destabilize conditions in their neighborhoods. His administration’s dubious record on transparency makes that a hard sell.
Similarly, when it comes to school safety, the official statistics are misleading. The press touted the news when suspensions and crime fell to all-time lows, but those declines resulted from pressuring principals not to suspend unruly students and encouraging school-resource officers to issue warnings for offenses that previously justified an arrest. Notably, both suspensions and crime have ticked back up in the past year. A Freedom of Information request by the New York Post revealed that according to internal data, teacher assaults, threats, and serious incidents have been rising steadily. This evidence squares with state data.
Soon after taking office, de Blasio dropped 17 safety- and order-related questions from the NYC School Survey. When a Manhattan Institute study revealed that more students reported violence, drugs, and gang activity on the remaining questions, the school system changed the form of the answers. New York City parents can’t judge shifts in school safety over time, because a standard measure from which to draw comparisons no longer exists. “The city found a way to say crimes are down in New York City public schools by changing crimes,” says Local 237 executive director Derek Jackson, whose union represents both the school-safety agents and the peace officers who work in the shelter system, “and they found a way to say that crime is down in New York City shelters by simply not reporting it.”
Citywide conditions have improved in numerous areas under de Blasio. In addition to fewer murders, the local economy has expanded, and the school graduation rate is rising. But the non-progressive administrations of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg succeeded on many fronts as well. De Blasio’s progressive posturing has raised expectations that he will do more to help members of the underclass allegedly neglected during the city’s revival over recent decades. It goes without saying that schools and homeless shelters serve some of New York’s most vulnerable populations. Shifting disclosure standards prevent an honest evaluation of whether this progressive administration is delivering on its promises.
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