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Flood the Zone?

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eye on the news

Flood the Zone?

With New York’s newly lenient criminal-justice system, even adding more cops is not enough to deter crime. July 6, 2021
New York
Public safety

“We’re going to flood the zone. We’re going to make sure Times Square is very well patrolled,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said after the latest Times Square shooting, on June 27, in which a stray bullet struck a Marine visiting New York City with his family. If all this sounds familiar, that’s because barely two months ago, de Blasio promised to put “additional NYPD resources in the Times Square area to add an extra measure of protection” after a shooter injured three bystanders, including a four-year-old girl, on May 8.

South of Times Square, in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, it’s also clear that the presence of cops alone isn’t enough to deter mayhem and violence. Residents describe the park as overrun by crime, anarchy, and the worst levels of open drug use they have ever seen.

In the Bronx, shootings have occurred in broad daylight, undeterred by bystanders, security cameras, or even terrified children caught in the crossfire. Scrambling in terror, 13-year-old Mia shielded her five-year-old brother Christian from bullets as a gang member on parole for attempted murder opened fire mere inches from them on June 17. Thankfully, Mia and Christian were physically unharmed.

De Blasio’s promise to “flood the zone” may assuage some tourists’ fears, but as these incidents show, New York City is reaping the harvest of dismantling laws, suspending punishment, and demoralizing police.

The city decriminalized many quality-of-life violations in 2017. More recently, Albany legalized marijuana. In 2020 (though effectively in fall 2019), New York State also instituted “bail reform,” which eliminated cash bail for most “nonviolent” felonies and misdemeanors. Bail reform allowed perpetrators like Tiffany Harris, who was arrested three times in one week for assaulting Orthodox Jewish women, to walk free. Earlier this year, Eugene Webb, a 26-year-old homeless man with a record of assaulting women, was arrested less than 24 hours after being released after a similar attack. In the first two months of the new bail reform, 482 people who were charged with a felony and released without bail were rearrested for new crimes a total of 846 times. Legislators have now rolled back some of these reforms, but they didn’t go far enough—perpetrators of robberies, commercial burglaries, and grand larceny auto can still be released from precincts with no cash bail mere hours after getting arrested.

New York legislators have gummed up the responsiveness of the criminal-justice system by “reforming” laws on discovery—the evidence that prosecutors and defense must share in a trial. Before the changes, the prosecution had to provide information only when requested by the defense and could wait to do so up to the eve of the trial. The new law requires that prosecutors hand over all discovery within 15 days of arraignment (though they may obtain a 30-day extension), including the names of any witnesses. This change is leading to huge delays in cases, meaning that criminals are still out on the street awaiting trial. Equally important, witnesses are often scared to come forward since they know that their personal information will be turned over immediately to the defense.

A multitude of laws has impeded cops’ ability to do their job. The city council’s “diaphragm bill” made it a misdemeanor for police to use a chokehold, compress the chest, or kneel on a suspect’s back or torso, even when the intent is not to harm but simply to take a resisting suspect into custody. The chokehold portion of the bill is uncontroversial: NYPD procedures already prohibit chokeholds, and state law makes using them a felony. But police executives, including former NYPD chief of department Terence Monahan, worry that cops will get charged criminally while attempting to take suspects into custody. Monahan says that “there’s a great possibility that your knee is going to end up on [a resisting suspect’s] back.”

A lawsuit filed by a coalition of police unions claims that the law has had a “chilling effect” that discourages police from doing their jobs. Police chiefs and sheriffs in neighboring jurisdictions directed their members not to enter New York City while taking enforcement action out of fear that their officers would be charged criminally. Some encouraging news arrived late last month, however, when a Manhattan judge deemed the diaphragm law “unconstitutionally vague.” De Blasio has urged lawmakers to “move quickly” to revise it.

The mayor’s promises to deploy more police into Times Square sound good—but so far, a larger police presence is not deterring the criminals who prey on tourists and residents. Without swift legal consequences for criminal behavior and a police force empowered to detain suspects, New York’s crime spike is likely to continue.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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