Over the last weekend in July, New York’s police blotter could have come straight from the Windy City—16 people shot in 10 encounters over seven hours. The casualty list: one dead and three critically wounded, plus a variety of close-call-but-non-life-threatening wounds. One weekend does not mean that the bad old days are back, or even necessarily indicate a trend, but the carnage followed news that murders were up by more than 8 percent in the first six months of the year—led by a 64.5 percent jump in the Bronx. And therein lies a clue to the underlying problem.
“When it comes to the homicides, it’s around 30 percent [gang-related],” NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan tells the New York Post. “When we come to non-fatal shootings, it’s around 40 percent where there’s some sort of gang nexus.” This is the same situation as in Chicago, where street-gang warfare has raged largely uncontrolled for several years—and where a typical weekend butcher’s bill dramatically overshadows anything New York City has experienced recently. The trick for the NYPD is to keep a lid on the violence, though recent trends here could make achieving that goal more difficult.
New York famously led the nation in reclaiming its streets from the crack gangs of the early 1990s, and a key to that victory was the intelligent use of information—databases, in particular. The NYPD profiled crime-prone neighborhoods statistically, isolated them tactically, and devoted the attention and resources to make them safe (or at least safer). The theory was simple enough: social issues may generate crimes, but criminals commit them, and the key to keeping innocent New Yorkers safe was to focus on the criminals. New York’s jails bulged, but murders dropped dramatically, as did virtually every other category of serious crime.
It’s been a generation since mothers put their babies to sleep in bathtubs to protect them from stray bullets coming through apartment walls, and New York’s focus has shifted regarding crime and punishment. Much less attention is getting paid to crime victims and far more to those who run afoul of the aggressive anti-crime tactics that served the city so well when Rudy Giuliani became mayor. Increasingly, those protocols are being dismantled.
Efforts to divert youngsters away from crime have been largely successful, but keeping young criminals as far away from the police as possible has, paradoxically, created the conditions for more criminality by effectively encouraging petty violations. In decriminalizing “victimless” crimes like public pot-smoking and subway turnstile-jumping—two recent strategies—New York City is allowing quality of life to slip, especially in poorer neighborhoods where criminal activity may fester.
The times being what they are, race and ethnicity are playing a big part in these policy debates—with advocates and their allies claiming that aggressive law enforcement has a “disparate” impact on minority communities. Objectively, this is a specious argument. Arrest and victimization statistics in New York City track one another on a racial and ethnic basis, almost to the decimal point. Politically, however, the argument is devastatingly effective: disparate-impact assertions have increasingly shut down enforcement of so-called quality-of-life offenses.
So look for those claims to be deployed again if the NYPD meets what appears to be a growing gang threat by using a time-tested weapon: information. Presumably, Police Commissioner James O’Neill is staying on the path blazed by his predecessors, William Bratton and Ray Kelly, by compiling actionable intelligence on the various groups and targeting enforcement to hotspots where gangs and crews are active.
Databases can be problematic, of course, and it’s important that they not be misused. But the gangs that have turned the word “Chicago” into shorthand for nihilistic gun violence must not be allowed to gain a foothold in New York. The city has come too far to turn back to the past now.
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