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The Battle of Perceptions on Crime
The gulf widens between TV and the activist left
Crime is higher than it used to be and there is more violence in the streets than there used to be. The previous sentence is inarguable—it’s only a question of when you believe used to be should be.
For many on the left, it’s worthwhile to put this spike in context. If crime has risen in most small and large American cities, including New York, it is far lower than its bloody twentieth century peak. It’s even lower than the antiseptic Bloomberg years, despite perceptions to the contrary. In the years 2010 and 2011, when Michael Bloomberg was well into his third term as mayor and the glittering city was supposed to resemble the set of Gossip Girl, more than 500 people were murdered annually. In the 2000s, it was not unusual for the murder rate to near 600. In 2003, 597 New Yorkers were killed. In 2006, that number was 596. As older New Yorkers know, that kind of murder rate would have been regarded as miraculous in the 1970s, 1980s, or early 1990s. Every single year, from 1969 through 1995, at least 1,000 people were killed annually, with the body count surpassing 2,000 in 1990 and 1991.
In 2021, a disturbing year for crime in New York City, 488 people were killed.
That context matters, but most people who perceive crime are not reaching back that far. Either they don’t bother because it’s not politically convenient for them—older conservatives fall into this camp—or they simply don’t remember. Instead, they recall the 2010s, when the tabloids railed against the liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio and the murder rate declined precipitously. The number 488 becomes far more galling when you consider, in 2017, just 292 people were killed. From 2013 through 2019, there were never more than 352 New Yorkers murdered in a single year.
The obvious fear, on the left and right, is that murders have not yet peaked. What if this is merely the beginning of a 1970s-style increase that won’t abate for decades? The good news, so far, is that while crime continues to surge in New York, the murder rate is actually slightly down from last year. The spike in shootings, which began at the end of 2019, has continued. Gun violence is worse in other poorer American cities, but it continues to plague pockets of New York. And occasionally, as in the case of the mass subway shooting this week, gun crime breaks out beyond the turf where gangs typically war.
The problem of crime—and the number of murders in particular—goes far beyond New York. In 2020, in the heart of the pandemic, the national homicide rate rose sharply to 6.5 murders per 100,000 people, according to FBI data. The last time it was that high was 1997. In 2019, the rate was 5.1 per 100,000 people.
The causes of crime and homicide increases are complex and hotly debated. To this day, academics disagree over why crime began climbing steadily across America in the late 1960s and didn’t abate until the 1990s. Everything from changing police tactics to incarceration rates to lead paint to the large number of young people in the population have been cited as possible explanations. In New York, it’s fashionable to credit Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, even though the murder decline began under David Dinkins and the overall drop off was a more pronounced version of a national trend.
We probably won’t know for years why exactly crime is spiking now. The greatest factor, of course, is the pandemic, and how it has destabilized society in the United States. Poverty or job loss alone can’t be blamed for an elevated crime or homicide rate—the economic crash of 2008 did not create a new crime wave—but it can be argued that the pandemic led to an increase in all kinds of unnerving behavior. The number of car crashes has risen dramatically, as well unruly incidents on airlines and drug overdoses. Few Americans have come through the pandemic unscarred.
As Covid winds down and the wreckage of these two years lingers on, a chasm is widening between the two factions that each seek to control the narrative on crime: traditional media and the online left. Traditional media includes broadcast TV, radio, and newspapers, particularly the tabloids of New York City. The online left is composed of the growing number of left-leaning or outright leftist digital-first media properties and the many activists who are well-represented there. The online left is ultimately better-intentioned, if not always accurate. Traditional media is more influential and deleterious, but so far is a better reflection of where working and middle-class sentiment remains.
The subway shooting in Brooklyn, in which 10 people were wounded, was emblematic of how the two factions argue their case in the public square. Two narratives are woven; one has more truth than the other, though neither represents exactly what happened. For the online left, the story of the shooting, in which a deeply disturbed 62-year-old man named Frank James entered a subway car and began shooting at random, is one of police failure. “It’s telling that when the shooter was finally caught, it wasn’t from hardnosed police work or shoe leather investigation. It was because a local business owner in the East Village had a working security camera, saw the guy on it, and called the cops,” Jack Crosbie wrote in a Discourse Blog piece entitled “The NYPD Can’t Protect Us. “The suspect had possibly been riding around the subway for hours since the shooting. None of Eric Adams’ thousands of cops had seen or stopped him before then. Maybe they had a different job to do.”
Indeed, the manhunt took around 30 hours and seemed to conclude when New Yorkers called in tips and then James apparently called the police himself. Since taking office in January, Adams has flooded the subway system with more police officers and resisted calls from progressives to cut the NYPD’s budget. There are about 36,000 police in New York and it took them more than a day to find a shooter who had posted YouTube rants and didn’t seem terribly adept at evading capture.
It is true that police cannot prevent all violent crime and no amount of them on patrol, in a subway system with 472 stations, can stop a man who wants to start shooting. Getting a gun in New York State is very hard; getting it in another state and bringing it to New York is quite easy. Lax gun laws in other states will never change. There is no degree of surveillance or technology that can stop a determined gunman in a subway network that carries millions of riders daily. Adams has been making noise of late about introducing some sort of unproven surveillance tech into the subway system to stop future shootings. It’s an unsettling idea—how do you scan hundreds of thousands or millions of people per day?—and likely unworkable.
In his piece, Crosbie echoes the arguments of the many progressives who support defunding or abolishing the police entirely. Within the left, these are two further factions, but the lines often blur and activists are not always clear about where they stand. In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, there was a clash between these camps, with some insisting they merely wanted to back criminal justice reform measures or reduce the police footprint while others, quite forcefully, insisted they wanted to literally abolish all police. The mass protests in the summer of 2020 initially spurred tangible changes in various localities and played a direct role in the New York State legislature finally repealing an archaic law shielding police disciplinary records.
The defund slogan, however, invited deep backlash from Democratic and Republican voters alike and the bloom of such a radical rose was soon off. Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump but Democrats were largely crushed down the ballot. It was simplistic to blame the defund rhetoric, yet enough Democrats did—ultimately, polling swung hard against the idea, and 2021 represented a reversion to a softer version of the politics that dominated 1990s and 2000s discourse: police aren’t so bad, after all. In his 2022 State of the Union, Biden, who had captured the Democratic nomination with strong support from the nation’s Black working-class, was explicit. “The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.”
The online left is correct in that the causes of crime are structural and material investments, over a long period of time, can help reduce bloodshed. Gang-infested neighborhoods need more job opportunities so gangs are not a lure for out-of-work, wayward teenagers. There’s evidence school closures in 2020—and the lack of available afterschool programs—may have fueled a horrific surge of gun violence in Philadelphia. Violence interruption initiatives should be generously funded. Mental health services must be boosted and be heavily subsidized so a person in crisis does not have to choose between two weeks of groceries or a trip to a doctor. Heavily armed men and women should not always be an immediate answer to a person in distress. Under Bill de Blasio, New York began a pilot program of dispatching social workers to mental health calls instead of police. It’s an initiative worth expanding.
None of this, though, will change the reality that police do have a role to play in preventing and solving crime. If the NYPD radically shrunk its headcount, crime would not disappear. In the wake of the 1970s fiscal crisis, 5,000 police officers lost their jobs. From 1975 to 1979, not a single officer was hired in New York City and police disappeared through attrition. A smaller police force was not a reformed force, and Black and Latino New Yorkers were continually harassed, abused, and killed in this period. The postwar social safety net, meanwhile, had frayed.
The investments activists call for today will take many years to realize. Even then, there will still be guns and gun crime. America is a nation of guns. If you visit the outer borough, working-class neighborhoods where resentment of the police can be strong, you won’t hear calls for a full-bore retreat. Rather, residents of East New York, Brownsville, or Bedford-Stuyvesant will tell you they want better police: police who take their pleas for help seriously and bring murderers to justice. They want crimes solved. If a best friend, spouse, or child is killed by a bullet, the next step, for those now suffering with the fallout, isn’t to cry out for budget cuts. Rather, they want police to care. Many murder cases are not solved. Witnesses don’t want to cooperate or fear retaliation. Those closest to violence—those who need to fear it daily—do want police in their communities.
Social workers, in turn, don’t want to be tasked with responding to violent crime. If a person is shot in the street or menaced with a knife, someone must be called who will willing to intervene. Leftists critical of police should not grow too fatalistic. New York and other large cities should recruit better people to join the force and train them far more effectively, weeding out those who enter policing for the wrong reasons. In Europe, this is the model. German police must undergo years of education and training. Though I’m generally skeptical of credentialism, it may be time to start requiring that NYPD recruits attend and graduate four-year colleges, or at least experience an equivalent level of training. Twenty-two year-olds are probably too young to be given guns.
The online left should have a better understanding of how policing works. It’s not a mark of failure that New Yorkers called in tips and police acted on them. Five will split a $50,000 reward. Policing everywhere depends on witnesses, cooperation, and tips. Tipsters can’t make arrests. That’s why police exist. Activists and politicians who embrace the online left’s rhetoric—who support defunding or routinely mock police—should understand they both have every right to do so and the public, in turn, has the prerogative to reject their politics. The class dimension here is palpable. The loudest calls to gut the police tend to come from the college-educated, the relatively safe, and those who don’t typically need police protection.
But sympathy must be extended to this activist left because their opponents—and allies in traditional broadcast media and radio—are deeply disingenuous. With scant evidence, moderate Democrats and conservatives have blamed 2019 changes to New York’s bail laws for the ongoing spike in crime. Nightly newscasts amplify this message. It is on channels 2, 4, 7, and 11 where Eric Adams, the police captain-turned-mayor, finds his people—his voters, his fans, his supplicants. “OK, so, how did this guy manage to get into the subway with a gun, a hatchet, smoke grenades and gasoline? I mean, do we need to go back to police doing backpack checks, metal detectors, stop and frisk? What do we need to do?” 1010 WINS’ Susan Richard asked Adams on Wednesday.
This sort of framing was everywhere on radio and television. Broadcasters and radio hosts, in the wake of the shooting, wanted Adams and his police to do something. Do something more. Blame, immediately, had to be assigned. A question is more than a question. A question carries assumptions and subtext. Richard wants Adams to say that police need to hunt through backpacks at random and install metal detectors throughout the subway system. She wants the return of the Bloomberg era approach to policing, when young Black men were indiscriminately targeted. Adams, who has staked his entire mayoralty on having New Yorkers perceive him as someone who can keep them safe, is happy to oblige this line of inquiry. It’s the kind that enables mass surveillance and abuse.
In Albany, Gov. Kathy Hochul has already validated the demagogue’s primary contention—that today’s crime spike must be laid at the feet of criminal justice reform. In the state budget, Hochul was able to expand the use of cash bail, allowing judges to take into account factors such as defendants’ gun records or whether they have violated an order of protection. The budget agreement added certain gun crimes to the list of offenses that are eligible for bail and made it easier for police to arrest people who have received multiple appearance tickets in a short time period. In 2020, Democrats had already weakened their reforms, expanding the list of bail eligible offenses.
None of these changes satiated Republicans or even Adams, who had demanded greater changes to the law like lowering the age of criminal responsibility. The expansion of bail in the budget isn’t a disaster, but it sets a precedent for further rollbacks in the future. It’s not hard to imagine a world where Democrats suffer the inevitable midterm drubbing in the fall—just like in 2010 and 2014—and decide to further erode the historic reforms they passed in 2019, when the use of cash bail was significantly reduced. Watching lawmakers lose in the suburbs may convince Democrats to abandon reform entirely. This would be tragic, a repeat of the mistakes of the 1980s and 1990s. Democrats must win a messaging war against Republicans and law-and-order centrists while understanding that they won’t do it while on the defensive. Lee Zeldin, running for governor as a Ron DeSantis clone, will not give credit to Hochul for forcing through changes to the state’s bail laws. He will savage her regardless.
The gulf widens. In the world of broadcast and radio, and inside the homes of the middle-aged and the elderly, all reform is now suspect. Crime will only come down when more Black and Latino men are thrown in jail. People never convicted of crimes must be held behind bars indefinitely. Adams can propose ever more elaborate and destructive surveillance schemes and win votes that way. The gains of the 2010s, when even certain Republicans embraced the cause of criminal justice reform, could be erased.
This is the reality the activist left confronts. If they overstate their case, they reasonably contend that the enemy is worse. They do battle with what they have. If there is a middle ground to be found, neither side is interested in it. Much, as always, is at stake.