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A Tale of Two Cities, Indeed

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A Tale of Two Cities, Indeed

Seven years after invoking Dickens, Mayor Bill de Blasio presides over a yawning safety gap in New York City neighborhoods. September 7, 2020
New York
Public safety

In his 2014 inauguration speech, New York mayor Bill de Blasio said that he’d take on the city’s elite in the name of “social and economic justice.” When it came to his signature issue back then—economic inequality—he pledged, using a Dickensian theme, to “take dead aim at the tale of two cities.” But he also recognized that “our city government’s first responsibility is to keep our neighborhoods safe.”

Nearly seven years later, economic inequality under de Blasio hasn’t changed. But the unequal distribution of serious violent crimes like shootings and murders has gotten worse. There remain two distinct New Yorks, and as crime ticks up, the difference between them is growing more pronounced.

Through August 30, the city’s 290 murders and 1,004 shooting incidents represent year-to-date increases of 33.6 percent and 87 percent, respectively. Manhattan has seen 52 murders and 135 shootings this year. About half (65) of those shootings took place in just three of the borough’s 22 precincts—the 23rd, 25th, and 32nd—all in Harlem. In those precincts, killings are up more than 100 percent, year-to-date. By contrast, Manhattan’s 6th, 19th, and 20th precincts—which cover the West Village, Upper East Side, and Upper West Side—have seen just two murders and three shootings combined.

In Brooklyn, where murders are up 72 percent (more than double the citywide increase of 33.6 percent), we see a similar disparity. Just four of Kings County’s 23 precincts—the 67th (East Flatbush), 73rd (Brownsville), 75th (East New York), and 77th (Crown Heights)—account for more than 57 percent of the borough’s 114 homicides, and just under half (219) of its 441 shooting incidents through August 30. Of course, not all Brooklynites are dodging bullets. Park Slope (78th precinct), Kensington (66th), Brooklyn Heights (84th), and Greenpoint (94th), have seen a combined total of just three murders and 15 shootings.

Of the 16 precincts in the borough of Queens, just two—the 101st (Rockaways) and 103rd (Jamaica)—account for a third (51) of its 150 shootings. Forest Hills (112th) and Douglaston (111th), meantime, have seen no murders and only one shooting all year. In the Bronx’s 44th precinct (Highbridge), 10 murders and 34 shootings have occurred—more gunfire than the entire borough of Staten Island has seen this year. In the Bronx’s 50th precinct (Riverdale), those numbers are just one and six, respectively.

Of 20 precincts compared in this article, the ten high-crime precincts have seen 105 murders and 369 shootings, while the ten low-crime precincts have seen just six murders and only 25 shootings.

It’s not enough to declare that Mayor de Blasio has failed to maintain public safety. We need to understand what set Gotham on this course. De Blasio’s campaign speeches obscured how the risk of violent victimization by criminals was unequally distributed across the city. He insisted that the representative victim of New York’s two cities was “a black teenager” feeling the need to “slide[] off his hoodie on the way home from high school hoping this will be a day when the police let him pass without incident.” If the crime data are any guide, that teenager is more likely to be worried about walking past local gang members without incident. The gang members, for their part, are probably less worried about the police than they’ve been in some time.

The mayor has had a hand in both phenomena. One of his first official acts was to drop the city’s appeal to U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s flawed ruling against the NYPD regarding its stop, question, and frisk practices. Shortly afterward, de Blasio smeared the department when he spoke of having to “train” his mixed-race son on how to minimize his chances of being brutalized by police. Those comments prompted hundreds of uniformed officers to turn their backs on the mayor after the double murder of Detectives Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in December 2014.

The mayor’s decision not to appeal Judge Scheindlin’s ruling led to a federal monitorship and a sharp reduction in the number of stops recorded by the NYPD. That reduction, however, didn’t satisfy critics, who set their sights on reducing searches pursuant to legal consent. The city council passed (with the mayor’s support) the Right to Know Act, which requires NYPD officers to apprise subjects of their right to refuse consent to a search. The mayor also backed legislation that would subject any officer to criminal penalties for applying pressure to the diaphragm of a suspect—even accidentally—while making an arrest. And he has just authorized a $1 billion cut from the NYPD’s budget, which required the cancellation of an academy class of new cadets.

The mayor has also lent his support to controversial decarceration efforts—approving the move to close and replace Riker’s Island and signing off on a plan that will cap the city’s jail capacity at 3,500 inmates, a figure 70 percent lower than the average daily population in New York City jails between 2008 and 2018. De Blasio announced in 2019 that he wanted to triple the number of teenage defendants diverted from jail by expanding what’s known as the Youth Engagement Track.

Combined with the many other legislative and administrative de-policing and decarceration efforts undertaken at the state and city levels, the mayor’s decisions have likely contributed to the city’s ongoing crime wave, with 955 shootings committed across the city through August 23.

De Blasio criticized his mayoral predecessors for the city’s stark disparities along racial lines. Using his own yardstick, he has done no better: blacks and Latinos accounted for the same percentage (82 percent) of NYPD arrests at the end of 2019 as they did the year that he took office. More disturbing, and consequential, this past June, 97 percent of the city’s shooting victims were nonwhite—a disproportionality that has remained essentially constant, both before his mayoralty began and throughout his time in office.

Under Bill de Blasio, New York is more than ever a tale of two cities—one safe, one dangerous and sometimes deadly. Guess which one he lives in.

Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images

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