As we approach 2020, disaster looms over public safety in New York. A surge in violent crimes has shocked the public, from the midnight slaughter of four street sleepers by a mentally ill homeless drug addict; to the late-afternoon murder of a Barnard student, apparently by three young teenagers; to a spate of anti-Semitic attacks, climaxing in the Harlem arrest of a man who chopped his way with a machete into the upstate home of a Monsey rabbi celebrating the penultimate night of Hanukkah.
Grafton Thomas, perpetrator of the Monsey attack, fled to New York City and was almost immediately apprehended. His car’s license plate number had been reported and, after he crossed the George Washington Bridge, the NYPD’s automated “license-plate reader” system registered his presence. He was arrested within 15 minutes of entering the city.
But if New York’s city council has its way, surveillance tools like the LPR will be rendered less effective, if not useless. The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act enjoys the support of Speaker Corey Johnson and the co-sponsorship of most of the city council, which held a long-awaited hearing on the bill only two weeks ago. In the name of “transparency,” the POST Act would require the NYPD to disclose and publish the details of how such technology works. A council report complains that “if a license plate of a passing car matches a ‘plate of interest,’ the system sends an alert. Advocates believe that these license plate readers raise privacy concerns because every license plate is scanned.” The NYPD has warned that the POST Act would create “a one-stop shopping guide” for criminals to evade scrutiny.
But judging by the state’s evolving criminal-justice landscape, empowering criminals seems like the goal. New York State is preparing to roll out sweeping criminal-justice reforms that will prevent police and the courts from detaining people arrested and charged with serious offenses. The new rules on bail remove judicial discretion from a remarkably wide array of charges. No one charged with a misdemeanor, for example, can be held on bail, regardless of his criminal history, gang affiliation, or evident disposition for committing more crimes. Misdemeanors in New York include assault in the third degree, causing “physical injury to another person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument,” and reckless endangerment in the first degree, when, “evincing a depraved indifference to human life,” someone “recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person.”
In advance of January 1, when the new reforms officially come into effect, judges and prosecutors statewide have begun easing into the new regime by proactively letting remanded prisoners out of jail and by releasing newly arrested serious criminals on their own recognizance. For instance, on Friday, Tiffany Harris of Brooklyn slapped three Jewish women in the face, yelling anti-Semitic imprecations. She was arraigned on Saturday and released without bail; she was arrested for assaulting someone else on Sunday. On Saturday, Steven Haynes, a Brooklyn man lying on the sidewalk, attacked and pummeled a police officer who asked him to get up. Charged with a series of crimes, Haynes was released by a judge and was back on the street within a few hours. In Rockland County—where the Hanukkah machete attack occurred—Jorge Flores-Villalba, an unlicensed driver, killed a pedestrian on Christmas Eve and fled the scene. He was released without bail on Christmas Day.
Police and other critics of the hastily enacted and sloppy criminal-justice reforms have been warning New Yorkers for months that the scene is being set for mayhem. But neither Governor Andrew Cuomo—who now promises to enact “domestic terrorism” legislation in response to the Monsey attacks—nor the legislature have moved to fix the new bail laws. Mayor Bill de Blasio has introduced a plan to offer incentives like gift cards or baseball tickets to induce offenders to return to court. “In a world where we want speedier trials and we want the justice system to work, if small incentives are part of what actually makes it work, then that’s a smart policy,” said the mayor. The day after the Monsey attack—perpetrated, like almost all the recent anti-Semitic violence in New York, by an African-American—de Blasio blamed President Trump. This echoed his June comments that “the right-wing movement” represents “the violent threat” of contemporary anti-Semitism.
Mayor de Blasio expresses the defeatism and denial that has infected the state’s entire political class regarding public safety. Having accepted the bogus argument that minority communities are disproportionately policed and “criminalized,” our leaders have seemingly surrendered the will to protect the communities—largely these same minority neighborhoods—most ravaged by crime. The only option left is to pursue the debunked logic that policing is driven by implicit racial bias, and that crime is caused by inadequate funding of social programs.
Governor Cuomo’s recent proposal to hire 500 new cops to patrol the subway system—where farebeating has become endemic, following local prosecutors’ announcement that they would no longer pursue fare-evasion cases—was met by fierce resistance from advocates and elected officials who decried it as racist. The New York Times called Cuomo’s plan “a blow to the fragile public trust that officials had finally earned in their promising efforts to turn around New York’s subway system,” but said nothing about anti-police demonstrations, resounding with explicit calls for violence against cops, focused around police activity in the subway system.
Mayor de Blasio and his supporters keep repeating that “New York is the safest big city in the nation.” It certainly was when he took over in 2014. But as we head into the last two years of his mayoralty, more and more of the people who ride its subways and walk its streets no longer feel safe. And Orthodox Jews, whose distinctive attire and cohesive communities make them eminently visible, presently find themselves at the front lines of the disintegration of public order.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images