Crime, Fear and Perception
Terry H. Schwadron
June 16, 2021
The New York City election for mayor is a one of a kind in the nation, one that draws more than its share of identifying Democrats both as candidates and voters, to run a city that has held what the nation would adjudge to be generally progressive social views.
In a city where a steady hand towards small business recovery, homelessness, public transit, education and housing availability ought to be dominating the airwaves two weeks out from the end of voting, which is underway, it is crime — or the perceptions of what to do about crime — that is marking the municipal elections.
What heightens that are arguments in commercials, debates and social media that hone in on crime, and coverage that tries to elevate local crime reports into a national question. Various politicians, parties and -isms are seeking to make this city election a wider referendum pitting anything resembling “defund police” slogans and those supporting Back the Blue.
“Fear of crime is back as a political issue in New York City. For the first time in years it could be a prime factor in who voters pick as their next mayor, the Associated Press reported matter of factly.
The lead in a contest difficult to assess both by the number of candidates and the first-time use of a multi-choice ballot seems currently to have swung to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, who throws around rhetoric about more targeted policing without a lot of specifics. Several other candidates teeter in agreement to “get guns off the streets,” while still trying to adhere to anti stop-and-frisk thinking. Of all of them, Maya Wiley, a former legal adviser to current mayor Bill de Blasio and once head of the civilian oversight police board, is most aggressive about looking anew at how police funds are spent.
It has become a slow-rolling sound-bite debate as if there are only two choices, and as if it is the most important issue facing the city. Without assured public safety, the general debate goes, we will not see the city fully rebounding from pandemic. How to provide that assured public safety is more nuanced than slogans and sound-bites allow and far more complicate to execute.
But it may be the wrong problem.
Crime or Mental Health?
Yes, there is more crime in New York today than a year ago; of course, a year ago, everyone was locked in at home, and the comparisons, particularly when measured by percentages, are skewed.
Year over year, the number of shootings are up with 687 injured, and there were 181 homicides as compared with the same period in 2019 (which is described as a whopping 50% increase). By comparison to the 1990s, however, those figures are way down. Many of the most common types of crime in the city, including robberies, burglaries and grand larcenies, remain near historic lows, the AP and others acknowledge.
A few very public shootings, including errant bullets injuring a toddler in Times Square, and the fear of random misdoings in the subway have boosted public perception of rising crime. A plurality of voters surveyed in a recent NY1/Ipsos poll chose “crime or violence” as the biggest problem facing New York, with racial injustice and police reform also in the top 10.
Police and neighborhood groups are working together to respond to increased reports of guns being delivered into the city by vanloads.
At the same time, the increase of mass shooting nationwide keeps us from accepting that local situations may differ. Through the first five months of 2021, gunfire killed more than 8,100 people in the United States, about 54 lives lost per day, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research organization. That’s 14 more deaths per day than the average toll during the same period of the previous six years.
Of course, if we really accept that premise, it begs the question of why we don’t do something about limiting guns.
In My Neighborhood
This week, my wife and I dialed into our lightly attended Harlem neighborhood Zoom conversation with two police officers assigned to community outreach. It reflected some of what is going on in a wider sense. The complaints aired were not so much about crime, or violent crime, as they were about the effects of drugs and homelessness on the streets — incidents of public urination, a guy stripping down, people congregating under the myriad scaffolded areas, and a specific corner near three methadone clinics where people from across the entire city seem to hang. They were issues of discomfort and feelings of fear, if not actual crime. Still, people want more police presence, not less.
Police expressed their willingness to respond, but did point out that there may be no actual crime involved. There have been nearly 30 arrests at that particular corner for drug selling in recent weeks, but there is also a new experimental program rolling out in which emergency medical treatment officers are paired with a mental health specialist to get those with emotional problems off the street and into treatment centers. Reports of “crime” or bad acts generally have gotten worse with the waning of pandemic.
Indeed, the police note that their very presence prompts those hanging at the corner to move onto less-trafficked nearby streets — with complaints from those residents. The targeted corner resulted from efforts a year ago to clean up a similar intersection a few blocks away.
On the city’s Westside, there was a very public debate over the use of an underused hotel where the city had sent homeless men. The individuals did not stay inside all the time, and soon normally tolerant Westsiders were complaining mightily about ugly confrontations, thefts, public urination, and the city moved the men involved.
Burden on Police
There is no NYPD equivalent of homelessness and mental illness counselors. None of the candidates for mayor is talking about adding thousands of trained personnel to deal with homeless and mental illness.
So the burden for dealing with the results is falling on police to respond or to add lighting or patrols. There is little talk about what to do to reduce the city’s 8,900 scaffolds, which keep the homeless out of police view. Instead, there is fear talk about crime and violence.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights leader and frequent speaker in the policing issues getting national attention, fully acknowledges that crime and homelessness are issues in the city, “it is not true that those of us that want police reform do not also at the same time want to deal with crime,” he told reporters last week.
Candidate Wiley would cut the police budget by $1 billion annually “and invest those funds directly into the communities most impacted by gun violence,” according to her statements. A Wiley campaign ad shows police driving into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters last year. She says in the ad that it’s “time the NYPD sees us as people who deserve to breathe,” a reference to the deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd.
Candidate Scott Stringer, who calls himself a liberal, says he would cut at least $1 billion over four years through measures such as transferring mental health response to non-police crisis teams and reducing police overtime. Kathryn Garcia skips talking about the police budget, but says officers’ minimum age should be increased from 21 to 25 and new recruits should be required to live in the city. Andrew Yang backs a police residency requirement as well as beefed up oversight of the department, but rejects calls to defund the police.
Adams, a NYPD officer for 22 years talks of having been a victim of police brutality as a teenager. He rejects all calls for budget changes and wants more recruitment of officers of color and less racial profiling.
It’s a lively debate, but perhaps unresponsive to what is prompting it.