For two decades, many New Yorkers had assured themselves that a return to the crime and squalor of the early 1990s was unlikely. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who presided over a 62 percent drop in major felonies from 1994 through 2001, proved that violence was not an urban inevitability. His successor, Michael Bloomberg, drove crime down further, through the 2008 recession and beyond. Both mayors set a benchmark for what was possible, preemptively discrediting any future mayor’s excuse that crime was beyond his capacity to overcome.
That assumption about the permanence of the crime drop was wrong. New York City in 2020 experienced an unprecedented one-year increase in homicides and shootings. Through December 27, 2020, the number of murders was up 41 percent from 2019 and 53 percent from 2018. Shooting victims were up 103 percent from 2019 and 109 percent from 2018; shooting incidents rose 97 percent and 104 percent. In gang-ridden precincts, the spike was even more startling. In Brooklyn’s Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods, there were 170 percent more shooting victims in 2020 than in 2019 and 151 percent more shooting incidents. Murder was up 94 percent in these parts of Brooklyn.
It wasn’t just gang areas that were afflicted. On December 29, a roving pack of young bicyclists in midtown Manhattan attacked a BMW, smashing a bike on top of the car and jumping on its windshield. The same group went after a cab minutes later. Office workers in the area have been chased by similar flash mobs.
The 2020 increase is actually worse than the annual numbers suggest. Street crime dropped from March 2020 to late May 2020, due to the coronavirus lockdown. The 2020 increase incorporates that early crime drop. Measured from June to the end of 2020, the rise in violence would be even more extreme. And it has continued into 2021. Shootings citywide were up 20 percent through February 14, 2021, compared with the first six weeks of 2020.
New York mayor Bill de Blasio has seemed almost blasé about this crisis as he begins his final year in office. The reason for that passivity is the same as the reason for the crime increase itself: the dominance of “antiracism” as the overriding policy concern among liberals and progressives. As long as antiracism remains the primary focus of New York’s leaders, the crime surge will continue.
De Blasio’s early mayoralty suggested that the Giuliani-Bloomberg benchmark was in fact checking the default leftism of New York’s leadership class. De Blasio chose as his police commissioner William Bratton. Bratton had engineered the crime turnaround of the 1990s as Giuliani’s first police commissioner. Selecting Bratton angered de Blasio’s left-wing base, which demanded a black or female commissioner (or, ideally, both). But de Blasio wanted maximal insurance against a crime increase, so he went with the sure bet. His next two commissioners were also white males, chosen for their likely ability to keep crime down, rather than for their race and sex. The Left was even angrier, but it could not overcome the power of the benchmark.
Over the last year, though, something even more powerful than a concern for one’s political legacy has arisen: the need to signal a commitment to fighting white supremacy. Following the death of George Floyd in May 2020, racial inequalities have become the obsession of the nation’s elites. Almost any public matter may be turned into a “race” issue, including Donald Trump’s battle in late 2020 and early 2021 to overturn the presidential election results.
The core concern of the antiracism crusade, however, is policing and incarceration. This is not a new focus, but in 2020, it became ever more destructive of law and order. For years, antipolice activists, academics, and liberal politicians have decried the overrepresentation of blacks in the criminal-justice system. Blacks make up about 12 percent of the nation’s population, but they account for one-third of the combined federal and state prison rolls; their per-capita rate of imprisonment is more than four times higher than the per-capita imprisonment rate of whites. Racism on the part of cops and prosecutors is the only permissible explanation for that disparity; acknowledging the vastly higher black crime rate is taboo. (The black incarceration rate is driven by convictions for violent crime—not, as popular lore has it, by convictions for drug offenses; 62 percent of black prisoners in state facilities, which house the vast majority of the nation’s prisoners, were serving time for a violent offense in 2018, compared with 48 percent of white state prisoners.) If, as antiracism orthodoxy dictates, the root causes of higher black crime—above all, family breakdown—may not be discussed, then the only way to reduce racial disparities in the criminal-justice system is to stop penalizing criminal behavior.
Such decriminalization efforts were ongoing in New York before 2020. The New York City Council and the New York State Legislature had lightened traditional penalties for a host of public-order offenses, such as public urination and public drinking. Bail was eliminated for misdemeanors and many felonies. (See “Department of Overcorrection.”) The Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys competed for the most sweeping de-prosecution initiatives. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced that he would not prosecute turnstile jumping, calling it a crime of poverty. (Actually, it’s a crime of arrogance, as a retired NYPD chief notes.) Not to be outdone, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez stopped sending most youthful gunslingers into detention, diverting them instead into poorly managed social-services programs. Meanwhile, officers who put pressure on a resisting suspect’s back or chest to subdue his violence could now be criminally charged.
These antiracism initiatives were just warm-ups. The more frenzied dismantling of law enforcement began in mid-2020, triggered by the national riots over the death of George Floyd. Floyd died on May 25, 2020, after resisting arrest for allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit bill in Minneapolis; video captured an officer pinning Floyd facedown on the ground with a knee to the nape of his neck for nearly nine minutes. Though subsequent evidence arguably undercuts the claim that Floyd died from that police hold, the incident was universally treated as a manifestation of the lethal police brutality that blacks endure on a daily basis. Minneapolis was the first city to burn, and riots soon spread across the country. In New York City, caravans of looters smashed storefronts and made off with millions of dollars in luxury merchandise and dollar-store inventory alike; rioters burned police cars and attacked officers with bottles, bricks, cement blocks, and jagged metal pipes. Officers worked back-to-back shifts with no time to sleep; nearly 400 officers were injured. More than 200 police cars were vandalized. As darkness fell each night, the city cowered behind plywood barriers hastily erected over apartment building entrances and commercial storefronts.
De Blasio called the unrest “very justified” and asked the police to use a “light touch” because people are “undeniably angry for a reason.” Not surprisingly, the violence continued unabated, finally pushing the mayor to impose an 8 PM curfew. Manhattan D.A. Vance was not cooperating. Vance would not be prosecuting curfew violations and other riot-related offenses like disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, his office announced.
The capitulation continued. On June 15, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea announced that he was dismantling the undercover units tasked with getting armed felons off the streets. This abdication was being done in the name of serving the “community”—code for avoiding disparate impact. The so-called anticrime units were among the last NYPD entities that forthrightly used their constitutional power to stop, question, and sometimes frisk individuals engaged in criminally suspicious behavior—a legal tactic, contrary to what New York’s political class believes. Shea labeled it “brute force.”
It is true, as was widely reported after Shea’s announcement, that anticrime officers were involved in a disproportionate number of police shootings. What was not reported was how low that number of shootings was. In 2019, there were 25 incidents in which NYPD officers intentionally shot criminal suspects, the second-lowest number of officer-involved shootings since records were first kept nearly 50 years ago. Fifty-four members of the NYPD were involved in those 25 shooting incidents, of which 19, or 35 percent, were from anticrime units. By comparison, the roughly 600 anticrime officers were 1.6 percent of the total NYPD sworn force. Those 25 shooting incidents resulted in 11 civilian fatalities—also a historically low number. All the civilians killed by NYPD officers in 2019 appeared to be threatening officers with potentially lethal force; seven had loaded guns.
To put those 25 citywide shooting incidents in perspective: in 2019, the 36,397 members of the NYPD responded to more than 6.4 million calls for service. More than 64,000 of those calls involved weapons. Twenty-five shootings and 11 fatalities are remarkably few, given the size of New York and of the NYPD. The NYPD’s per-capita use of force is significantly below that of many other departments facing comparable population demographics.
For example, from 2015 to 2020, the Houston police, a department of 5,400 officers, killed an average of eight people a year. The NYPD, nearly seven times the size of Houston’s force, killed an average of nine people a year from 2010 to 2019. In 2018, the NYPD killed five people. The Houston rate, if translated to the NYPD, would mean an average of close to 56 civilian fatalities a year.
That anticrime officers were overrepresented among officers involved in shootings says nothing about whether they were trigger-happy or prone to excessive force. Confronting armed, violent, and resisting suspects was virtually their job description. The likelihood of an officer’s use of force is a function of how often he interacts with violent suspects. Three percent of anticrime officers discharged their weapons at suspects in 2019; that number, too, suggests restraint rather than brutality.
Shea should have lauded the anticrime officers for their professional contributions to “community” safety, rather than decommissioning them. Disbanding the units signaled that the department was “no longer in the arrest business,” says former police commissioner Ray Kelly. That message was heard. Shootings jumped 205 percent in the two weeks after Shea’s announcements, from 38 incidents over those two weeks in 2019 to 116 incidents in 2020. Gunshot injuries rose 238 percent. June 2020 became the most violent month, in terms of gunfire, in 24 years. Suspects knew that their chances of getting stopped with a gun had dropped enormously.
NYPD officers also got the message. In the month following the disbanding of the anticrime units, narcotics arrests fell 85 percent, gang detectives made 90 percent fewer arrests, subway and housing arrests fell by comparable amounts, and gun arrests dropped 67 percent. Through early December, arrests citywide were down 36 percent, though gun arrests had started rebounding. Too late: the increased gun arrests couldn’t keep up with the increase in guns on the street, and the year ended with a 100 percent surge in gun violence.
When proactive policing and public-order enforcement are universally denounced as racist, officers do less of those activities. When crime rises as a result, officers are charged with racism as well. Now, as shootings surged, the NYPD was accused of indifference to the “community.” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD sergeant and a fierce critic of the department’s stop, question, and frisk tactics, complained that his constituents were not getting the police response that they deserved. The police had allegedly not cracked down on illegal dice games and loud music at night, following resident complaints. But had officers tried to end those illegal dice games and loud music, they would have subjected themselves to complaints about their oppression of minority communities. Moreover, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez would have thrown out any summonses or arrests for such low-level quality-of-life problems anyway, so why should officers bother in the first place?
The most shameless hypocrisy came from Donovan Richards, formerly chair of the city council’s public-safety committee and now Queens borough president. Richards embraces Black Lives Matter ideology. He has called for the evisceration of Broken Windows enforcement, labeling it a “systemic wrong” that has “stymied progress” for black and Latino communities. Yet here he was, a month after the disbanding of the anticrime units, complaining that “communities are being held hostage by the cops and the robbers at the same time.” The cops allegedly engaged in such extortion by not delivering precisely the proactive enforcement that Richards calls a “systemic wrong.” When crime goes up, it is easier to lash out at the cops than to acknowledge the social ecology of crime—it thrives in an environment with neither informal social controls such as strong families nor formal controls such as police presence.
“A good economy is not the precondition for lowered crime; lowered crime is the precondition for economic vitality.”
New York’s slide into lawlessness is mirrored nationwide. The year 2020 likely saw the largest percentage increase in homicides in U.S. history. The local and the national crime increases have the same cause: making the avoidance of disparate impact the guiding principle of law enforcement. Given the vast disparities in crime commission, however, law enforcement will inevitably fall heaviest on blacks. But crime, too, falls heaviest on blacks. In order to protect law-abiding minority residents, officers have to operate more intensively in minority areas. There is no middle ground. In New York City, blacks made up over 74 percent of all known shooting suspects in 2019, though they are only about 23 percent of the city’s population. Non-Hispanic whites were a little over 2 percent of all known shooting suspects, though they are about 34 percent of the city’s population. Those suspect identifications come from the victims of, and witnesses to, shootings—overwhelmingly minority themselves. Shooting victims were over 71 percent black in 2019 and 2.5 percent white. Police do not wish these facts into existence; they are the reality of urban crime. The data mean, however, that the police cannot respond to shootings without being called into minority neighborhoods and being given the description of a minority suspect, if anyone is cooperating with the police.
The city has come back from the brink before. The crime turnaround that began under Giuliani and Bratton can happen again if the NYPD reinvigorates proactive enforcement—above all, Broken Windows enforcement. The anticrime units should be reconstituted and given political support. The city’s prosecutors must cooperate in imposing serious consequences for antisocial behavior. A jail or prison sentence is not always required. Being processed for an arrest may be enough to disrupt criminal behavior and discourage its continuation. But every city official must be unequivocal that lowering crime is the most urgent task facing the city as it tries to rebound from the economically disastrous lockdowns. As long as crime and disorder continue increasing, residents and would-be residents will stay away and businesses will have even less reason to bring their employees back to the city’s commercial core. A good economy is not the precondition for lowered crime; lowered crime is the precondition for economic vitality.
Unfortunately, all the candidates for mayor and Manhattan district attorney are committed to the systemic police racism conceit, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the NYPD is a civil rights organization—one dedicated to equalizing the benefits of safe streets across the city. With few exceptions, the would-be mayors and prosecutors are calling for more decriminalization and decarceration, not less. (Eric Adams has called for restoring the anticrime units in select precincts, on the ground that the “bad guys are saying if you don’t see a blue and white you can do whatever you want.”) Absent a change in New York’s reigning ideology, choosing a police commissioner for his crime-fighting prowess alone is over; diversity will be paramount. There is still time, however, for a mayoral candidate to emerge who can articulate the core function of urban government: providing the civil order that allows human creativity and entrepreneurship to flourish. If that doesn’t happen, New York may be heading back not just to the early 1990s but to the even grimmer 1970s.
Top Photo: A police officer responds to a December 2020 shooting outside the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan. (REUTERS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)