Mayor Bill de Blasio has made big promises for New York’s reopening. “This is going to be the summer of New York City,” he exulted last week. “You’re going to see amazing activities, cultural activities coming back. I think people are going to flock to New York City, because they want to live again.” But the mayor’s hopes hit a bump on Saturday afternoon, when a local miscreant opened fire in Times Square, wounding three bystanders, including a little girl. This midday terror became national news, further reviving an image of New York City as the place not to be.
Senseless violence is now a depressingly ordinary occurrence in New York. Murders are up 17 percent over last year so far, and 49 people were shot just last week. The mayor has offered cold comfort over the last year by noting that other categories of crime are down, but as the pandemic abates, crimes like robbery and felony assault are becoming much more common.
De Blasio sounded especially tone deaf when he posted a video of himself on the subway in the Bronx asking a “real New Yorker” if she felt safe riding the train. “I’ve lived here all my life so I’m ready for anything when I get on the train,” she explained. “Ready for anything!” de Blasio exclaimed. “That’s what a real New Yorker is all about.”
Being “ready for anything” sounds like something Army Rangers train for, not what the average person expects during his commute or while taking the family on an outing. It didn’t help matters that, less than 24 hours before the video was posted, a box cutter-wielding assailant randomly slashed a 52-year-old off-duty subway conductor across the face, nearly blinding him.
But de Blasio, who will return to private life in less than eight months, isn’t the only one in denial about crime in New York City. Of graver consequence to public safety are the opinions of the candidates in this year’s citywide election, which includes the race to replace Cy Vance in the powerful role of Manhattan district attorney. This office, which has had only three elected occupants since Thomas Dewey finished his one term in 1941, is responsible for prosecuting cases of major importance, and its approach to law-and-order issues sets the tone for county-level attorneys nationwide.
A debate last week among the eight largely unknown aspirants for the seat offered a baleful outlook for the prosecution of street crime. Aside from Liz Crotty, a former prosecutor who favors a robust, practically quaint, police-oriented approach to stopping crime, the field of candidates tripped over one another to assert their credentials as opponents of zealous prosecution, incarceration, and even the use of the word “violent” to describe violence. They all, for instance, take it for granted that the role of the district attorney has to be reconceptualized radically in order to end the system of “mass incarceration” that Vance helped foster. But the number of people incarcerated in New York State prisons has fallen markedly over the last 15 years, from roughly 63,000 in 2006 to 46,000 in 2019, before criminal-justice reforms and pandemic-related measures drove the totals down even lower.
The debaters seemed bizarrely out of touch across the board, but their answers to the question of how to prosecute gun crime were especially jarring. By law, illegal possession of a gun in New York City carries mandatory jail time, though prosecutors have discretion about pursuing top charges. To go by their statements, however, the candidates favor an approach to gun possession almost indistinguishable from that of hardcore Second Amendment purists. Lucy Lang—who cites the district attorneys of Chicago and Baltimore as models—wants to create a special “gun court” that will “harness all resources available to identify what led a person to possess a gun and provide community-based services to tailor intervention and prevent future crime.” This “trauma-oriented” response to gun possession infantilizes criminals by assuming they have no agency in their choices and is part of the “public health approach” to gun violence that is failing so miserably wherever it is implemented.
Alvin Bragg cited his own “lived experience” in Harlem and his father’s illegal possession of a handgun “to protect our home in the seventies and eighties” as a justification for not seeking harsh consequences for “mere” possession of a gun. Virtually all the candidates echoed this sentiment. This is basically the position of any gun-rights libertarian, who believes that people should be punished not for owning or carrying a gun but for harmful acts they commit with them.
Tahanie Aboushi, the favored candidate of the far Left in the DA race, speaks of how the criminal-justice system intensely damaged her own family. Her website explains, “Tahanie’s fight to end mass incarceration is personal. When she was fourteen, her father was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Overnight, Tahanie’s mother became a single parent of ten children.” A Palestinian-American who wears a hijab, Aboushi obliquely implies that her father was swept up in anti-Muslim “perception and prejudice” that “can shape and distort how a person is treated,” though in fact he was convicted for his role in hijacking trucks as part of a major criminal conspiracy.
Explaining the rise of gun violence in New York, Aboushi insists that “this pandemic has exacerbated everyone’s situation and has really pushed people into desperate measures.” This “root causes” argument is a common one among those on the far Left, but it is belied by the facts of actual shootings, almost all of which are gang-related disputes or arise from squalid arguments based on insults or perceptions of disrespect.
New York’s leading mayoral candidates appear to be responding to the erosion of public safety and indicating, at least, that they don’t plan to “defund the police.” But if prosecutors refuse to proffer charges against and seek to incarcerate violent criminals, then public safety will continue to crumble—and the city’s future prosperity will remain in question.
Photo by Wang Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images