Is New York City headed back to the bad old days of the 1970s? For those who don’t remember, that’s when the Son of Sam dominated headlines, the middle class fled to the suburbs amid rising crime, and President Gerald Ford’s refusal to offer a bail out during the 1975 fiscal crisis sparked the famous New York Daily News headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
Ed, we’ve touched on this before in Swamp Notes, but I’m getting more worried. The May statistics from the New York police department tell a truly frightening tale — the overall crime index in the city is up almost 23 per cent year on year, driven by a 46.7 per cent increase in robbery and a 35.6 per cent increase in grand larceny. Almost double the amount of people were shot. The only thing that didn’t rise was the number of burglaries. The previous month’s numbers were even worse — crime grew more than 30 per cent compared to the previous year, and shooting incidents tripled.
Why is this happening? There is no quantitative way to know, but I will venture a few educated guesses. First, the end of lockdown has surely had something to do with it — after all there are now more people on the streets. Second, the pandemic has pushed many people over the brink. I found it difficult to be cooped up for a year and I actually had space and a job. I have no idea how the majority of the city’s population — living in tiny apartments (the average in Manhattan is 700 square feet) and trying to work from home with children doing online schooling within earshot — did it. This stress, coupled with the economic fallout for the jobless (stimulus payments are now ending) has surely created stress in the system that is showing up in crime stats.
Third, policing in New York, as in the rest of the country, is in a state of flux to say the least. Even before the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement had resulted from major pressure on police reform. The murder of George Floyd completely tipped the tables, putting every cop on notice that brutality would no longer be tolerated, and rightly so. This is, needless to say, a good thing.
But, having spoken with several police offers in recent weeks, I’m also hearing that it has made cops wary of intervention in a way that might also affect statistics. They literally worry about putting a foot wrong legally. I spoke to one officer outside the 78th precinct in Brooklyn last week who said that evolving rules around when cops can and can’t use force, how to touch a subject (or not), even how to speak to people — and the magnitude of impact for them if they make even the smallest mistake in protocol — has created a sense of uncertainty and wariness as they walk the beat. He and other officers I’ve spoken with believe that this is emboldening criminals to become more aggressive. Given that police reform continues to evolve in real time, and that hot summer months such as July and August have higher rates of violent crime, many people in law enforcement predict that things will get worse before they get better.
Couple this with the fact that the court system is backed up for months, even years in some areas, and you have a city that is at the boiling point. For this reason, I’ve decided that I’ll be voting for Eric Adams in the Democratic mayoral primary elections that started on Saturday. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, is a former NYPD officer. As a black teen growing up in a tough neighbourhood, he was beaten up by cops. He’s spoken out against police brutality and racial profiling. But he’s also someone that understands that if crime continues to increase at its current rate, the city is going into a downward spiral. I like the idea of someone who has lived both sides of this story figuring out the best solutions.
My question for you, Ed, is how are things in Washington crime wise? And what are your own views on the balancing act within police reform?
Rana, your concern about America’s rising crime levels has also very much been on my mind (here’s the column I wrote on this subject a month ago). If this trend isn’t arrested and reversed soon, we will see a replay of the Nixonian 1968 law and order playbook — and Democrats will take most of the blame. Republicans certainly deserve at least half: the relentless march of gun rights continues across the nation, most recently in an absurdly permissive new law passed in Texas; and Democratic efforts to dilute the qualified immunity that shields trigger-happy police officers from civil liability are being strangled by Senate Republicans.
Democrats have traditionally been shockingly bad at handling the politics and governance challenge of deteriorating law and order. Homicide rates, including in Washington DC, have been rising for several years. But last year was especially bad — and not just because of the pandemic. Most of last year’s leap took place after George Floyd’s murder in late May. Though no city has come close to fully defunding the police, and crime is rising fairly evenly across the US, the George Floyd impact on the psychology of law enforcement has been tangible. As you say, Rana, the police have been pulling back and vacating urban ground to neighbourhood gangs.
Maybe Eric Adams has some good ideas — he’s not your typical mayoral candidate. But the challenge of making police forces more accountable while also encouraging them to get back into the neighbourhoods will involve some tricky balancing. Both goals are imperative. Yet they are in tension. In theory it must be possible to reduce police shootings and racial bias while also bringing crime down. In practise it won’t be easy.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘Kamala Harris’s troubled vice-presidency’:
“As a former delegate to the 2020 Democratic National Convention, I was also unenthused about Kamala Harris’ addition to the ticket, aside from the historic additions she would make to the office. It will be interesting to see how her role will change, if at all, after the 2022 midterms. Her additional role as a tiebreaker vote in the thinly-divided Senate may shift to spending more time in the West Wing as opposed to Capitol Hill. Despite her initial setbacks in Guatemala, I’m sympathetic to Ed’s view that there will be plenty of time to learn and grow before a possible 2024 run for her boss’ seat.” — Osiris Parikh, Beaverton, Oregon