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A Serious Threat to New York

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A Serious Threat to New York

Gangs could reverse the city’s success in combating violent crime—but a new academic report dismisses their significance. December 23, 2019
New York
Public safety

New York has made tremendous strides in fighting violent crime since the 1980s and early 1990s, but pockets of the city still confront relatively high rates of violence. In these neighborhoods, serious crime is largely driven by gangs and “crews”—smaller, less formal groups of youths, with membership usually based on a block or building. According to the New York Police Department, in recent years, gangs—and crews in particular—account for between 30 percent and 40 percent of Gotham’s homicides, and between 40 percent and 49 percent of the city’s shootings.

Many of these crews operate out of New York’s public housing projects, where, according to a Citizen’s Crime Commission of New York City report, “nearly 20 percent of citywide shooting incidents occur.” These projects house less than 5 percent of the city’s population, with approximately 400,000 registered residents—21 percent of whom are over the age of 62 and contribute almost nothing to the violent trend. NYCHA has experienced surging crime over the past year, especially in East Harlem. Gangs present a real threat to the public’s safety; last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio called gangs and crews “one of the central ongoing problems in this city.”

Yet a recent report from Brooklyn College’s Policing and Social Justice Project claims that the “presence of gangs” in New York is “overstated and demonized by the police and media.” Along with supporting activists’ “fight for the rights of . . . those who may be legitimately connected to gangs or crews,” the authors call for abolishing the NYPD’s gang unit, ending “gang takedowns,” discontinuing “precision policing,” and, notably, eliminating police gang databases, among other demands.

Written by organizer Josmar Trujillo and sociology professor Alex S. Vitale (author of the 2017 book The End of Policing), the report coincided with the launch of a coordinated campaign—led by the Legal Aid Society—targeting the gang databases. So far, the push has won favorable attention in several local media and criminal-justice outlets, including the Daily News, Gothamist, John Jay College’s Crime Report, NY1, City Limits, The Appeal, The City, and NPR.

Rather than credit the law-enforcement community’s dedication to extending the last quarter-century’s crime reductions, Trujillo and Vitale contend that public-safety efforts aimed at gangs and crews amount to unwarranted “mass criminalization” and racially motivated “harassment”—byproducts, they say, of relying on the supposedly flawed “logic that has driven much of the enormous increases in incarceration over the last 40 years.” Further, they say, the NYPD’s gang database is “a strategy of racialized suppression that undermines safety for the communities that police claim they are working to serve.”

Considering the severity and sweep of these charges, one might expect the report’s claims and policy recommendations to be supported by considerable empirical evidence. Instead, the report offers a collection of unsubstantiated claims—leveled, often anonymously, by the friends and families of a handful of convicted criminals and members of the criminal-defense bar—innuendo, factual misstatements, and misguided ideas about the “root causes” of crime, such as poverty (New York’s 2016 poverty rate, 19.5 percent, was higher than in 1989, at 18.8 percent, when violent crime was a far bigger problem). To their credit, Trujillo and Vitale acknowledge that the publication “is not intended to be a quantitative research report.” Nor is it “intended to be an exhaustive audit of gang policing tactics.” But this didn’t stop them from calling on law-enforcement officials to abandon successful policies and tactics.

The paper’s shortcomings begin in its introduction, which, after a brief defense of the Latin Kings, asserts that “Gangs are not legally defined in New York state”—a claim they repeat. But Title 10 of the New York City Administrative Code defines a “criminal street gang” as “any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, that engages in criminal conduct [i.e., the felonies or misdemeanors relating to a host of define crimes like assault, homicide, sex offenses, and robbery] as one of its primary purposes or activities.” The code also defines “criminal street gang initiation activity.”

Among the paper’s only clear references to empirical analysis is the citation of a study of the proposition that “gang unit cops exhibit ‘extreme bias’ regardless of training.” The cited paper analyzes a “shoot/don’t shoot” experiment comparing gang-unit cops with other police officers and members of the public. The analysis found that “officers who routinely deal with (stereotype-congruent) minority gang members” were less likely to exhibit differences in the racial breakdowns of their “shoot/don’t shoot” decisions after bias training, supporting a hypothesis that “race may be taken as a diagnostic cue, leading to more extreme bias” in the simulation, because their “on-the-job experience with gang members and street crime create a ‘stereotype-congruent’ environment that allows them to rely more heavily on heuristics.” But the study also found that police officers “show no evidence of racial bias in their ultimate decisions to shoot,” and that gang-unit cops outperformed comparison groups in detecting guns and were, overall, less likely to shoot suspects. These findings do not support the implication that gang-unit cops can be characterized by “extreme” levels of racial bias.

The case against the NYPD’s gang database, according to Trujillo and Vitale, seems based on the purported consequences of inclusion in it. They cite, but don’t define, police “harassment,” pointing to an NYPD official’s testimony that gang database members “had on [sic] average of over 11 arrests, five of which are felonies,” and to three statements made by criminal defendants or their family members alleging that police targeted them for arrests and citations. One of the allegedly harassed was Ronnie Williams, convicted in a jury trial of attempted murder in connection with the shootings of four people—including, per the report, “a pregnant teen whose baby died.”

The authors also claim that inclusion in the database results in gang sweeps and multi-person indictments that stem from facilitated investigations. In metro New York, the most recent examples of such law-enforcement actions include a 77-count indictment, announced last Friday, of nearly 100 alleged members of the MS-13 gang; the other (touted by the NYPD as the result of “precision policing”) is a 48-count indictment of 10 alleged members of a Brooklyn-based crew. But being in the database isn’t a basis for indictment—the government bears the burden of demonstrating guilt for underlying offenses, independent of gang membership.

Another unjust consequence of being in the gang database is “enhanced bail,” allege Trujillo and Vitale. But in the section devoted to this argument, they fail to present empirical evidence, instead proffering a few statements about bail, attributed anonymously to some criminal defense attorneys. While it’s plausible that gang database members may have bail imposed at higher amounts, that’s likely due to their criminal histories. The authors later cite a Center for Court Innovation analysis that tried to control for such differences; despite those controls, their analysis notes, “there were still significant differences between the samples, most notably in criminal history.” And the differences reported in bail outcomes were slight. In misdemeanor cases, 43 percent of defendants triggering an “arrest alert” had bail imposed, as opposed to 39 percent in the comparison group. The gap in the bail amount was less than $100. In felony cases, 89 percent of “arrest alert” defendants had bail imposed, compared with 85 percent of the comparison group, with the former’s bail amounts averaging just over $12,700 compared with $9,400 for the comparison group. Trujillo and Vitale also fail to recognize forthcoming bail reforms, taking effect January 1, which will radically reduce bail impositions for a host of offenses, irrespective of whether a defendant is listed in the gang database.

The report goes on to suggest that inclusion in the gang database “may have” affected the employment prospects of two individuals, resulted in exclusion from public housing (an outcome that only an arrest or conviction can trigger), and increased the risk of deportation for undocumented criminals. On the last matter, Trujillo and Vitale admit that “it is not known how many gang takedowns in New York City have led to deportations.” In fact, they fail to name a single instance of a deportation stemming from inclusion in the gang database, concluding only that immigration “practitioners report that allegations of gang affiliation are arising in the immigration context.”

Despite the progress made in reducing New York’s violent-crime rate, gangs and crews remain a serious problem. A targeted approach to that problem is consistent with the best assessments of hot-spot policing and environmental criminology. Tracking the most threatening criminals in our city—and focusing on the places where crime is most concentrated—would minimize the likelihood of less serious offenders receiving harsher treatment than necessary, because it enhances the ability of police, prosecutors, and judges to offer second chances when the risk of doing so is low. The benefits of an intelligence-driven approach to gang policing neither foreclose the possibility of improvement nor guarantee that a gang database couldn’t be abused. But, to the extent that a case for reform exists on this front, Trujillo and Vitale don’t make it.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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