Shootings in New York City continue to climb. Fifteen people were shot in 15 hours over this past weekend, from Rockaway to the Bronx. A baby was among four people shot at a cookout in Brooklyn on Sunday night; he died from his wounds. The last month has seen a striking rise in shootings and homicides. Over the year to date, murders are up 27 percent over the first half of 2019; over the last four weeks, more than 300 people have been shot in New York City, up from 100 during the same period last year.
Many people, including NYPD brass, have looked at the rise in violent crime and associated it with the extensive criminal-justice reforms enacted over the last few years, especially since the beginning of 2020. Chief of Department Terence Monahan described “a combination of things—bail reform, Covid releases from prison, court shutdown, which has Rikers [Island] at half of where they were”—as contributing to the crime escalation. Reform advocates and much of the media jumped on Monahan’s comments and demanded support for his contention. They hailed the NYPD’s release of a report indicating that only one person released as a result of bail reform has been arrested and charged with a shooting—evidence, as they saw it, that Monahan was blowing smoke in an attempt to discredit the progressive effort to end mass incarceration.
But an absence of data (for now) specifically linking misguided reforms, decriminalization, and decarceration to the rise in violent crime hardly debunks the connection between them. Most of the shootings have seen no arrests yet, so it’s impossible to know whether the perpetrators were recently released from jail, though dozens of releasees are suspects in shootings. Moreover, with courts largely closed because of the pandemic, over 1,800 people arrested on illegal gun charges have been released to walk the streets.
Prosecutors in New York City have embraced the national trend of declining to indict suspects arrested for various crimes; as a result, arrests are down. In the first three months of 2020, police arrested 9,326 people on charges that merited more than just a notice to appear, down from 17,410 such arrests in the same period in 2019. Yet, crime was up over the same period. Clearly, thousands of criminals are going about their business with relative impunity as a result of the extensive dismantling of the criminal-justice system.
Meantime, as New York City lapses into chaos, its leadership remains feckless. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s response to the escalating violence around the city has been to blame “dislocation in communities” related to the coronavirus. As for what’s causing the disorder, de Blasio insists that he is “much more interested in the solutions rather than continually debating the analysis.” De Blasio also praised the “Cure Violence” movement for its efforts at “violence interruption,” which involves “community people reaching young people in particular, mediating, stopping violence before it happens, really creating the kind of dialogue and support, the mental health support, the things that change the foundational reality.”
Along these same lines—blaming a surge in violence on a deficit of social resources—Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez connected the rise in shootings to economic deprivation. “Maybe this has to do with the fact that people aren’t paying their rent,” the congresswoman mused, “and are scared to pay their rent and so they go out and they need to feed their child and they don’t have money so you maybe have to . . . they are put in a position where they feel they either need to shoplift some bread or go hungry that night.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s explanation comes straight from Les Misérables, and it remains a popular view about why crime occurs: all crime is economic at root, the thinking goes. Calls to defund the police and transfer the money spent on law enforcement to social services reflect this sentiment. Spending enough money on social workers, food banks, housing, and education, would render police obsolete, because crime would vanish.
Yet it’s clear that the current spate of shootings in New York City is not driven by economic need. Petty larceny, such as shoplifting groceries, is substantially lower so far this year versus 2019, as is grand larceny. And few, if any, of the recent killings appear to have been the result of a “robbery gone wrong”; in fact, robbery is also down across the city. The baby killed on Sunday night was shot by a group of men who pulled up in a SUV, jumped out, and started firing at the group of people assembled for a cookout. Last week, in the Bronx, a man crossing the street with his daughter was targeted, in daylight, by an assassin who shot him in the head from the passenger side of a car.
These are acts of revenge or score-settling, not economic crimes of opportunity. Ocasio-Cortez’s vision of crime as driven by the need for bread is satisfyingly simple, because if it were true, it would be easy to fix. The truth is, violent crime is driven by the perverse motives of violent criminals—and New York City has given these individuals permission to run wild.
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