For the First Time in 20 Years, New York's Crime Rate Is on the Rise

While Bloomberg brags about his record, the city's crime rate is on the rise

In an interview with the Voice, City Councilman Peter Vallone, the chair of the public safety committee, countered: "The mayor says murder is down, so what's he missing? He's missing the fact that crime in every borough is up, the first time that this has happened in 20 years."

Vallone's theory on the crime increase involves a combination of two factors: "fewer police officers and more criminals," he says. There are fewer than 35,000 police officers today, compared to 41,000 in 2001, which puts uniformed strength closer to the level it was before federal funding back in 1992 allowed for a large hiring program.

"The outer-borough precincts are staffed at about half the levels they were in 2001," Vallone says. "And those who are assigned are often on ceremonial duty, parade duty, baby-sitting Occupy Wall Street, guarding any number of terror locations. They are rarely actually patrolling their neighborhoods. I've raised this with Commissioner Kelly, and he does not disagree. I've raised it with the mayor, and he believes we have enough cops. It's an area where we vehemently disagree."

Last year, Tayshana Murphy of the Grant Houses—a promising basketball player—was shot and killed.
C.S. Muncy
Last year, Tayshana Murphy of the Grant Houses—a promising basketball player—was shot and killed.
West Harlem has seen renewed violence and feuding between the Grant and Manhattanville public housing complexes.
C.S. Muncy
West Harlem has seen renewed violence and feuding between the Grant and Manhattanville public housing complexes.

Vallone places part of the blame in a surprising place: drug-law reform.

For years, lawmakers and activists have pushed to reform New York's Draconian Rockefeller drug laws, wanting the state to follow the lead of others that direct more offenders into drug treatment rather than into prison. As part of that reform, in 2009, the legislature and then-governor David Paterson gave judges more authority to send nonviolent offenders to drug treatment.

But Vallone says that move had an unintended consequence: Cases are taking longer to resolve, and offenders remain on the street longer.

"People going to jail for drugs is down, and people going for treatment is down," he says. "A dealer can go in for his fifth arrest and still get treatment. There is no limit on the number of arrests. That is a huge drain on police resources, and these cases clog the court system."

Vallone thinks things will get worse. "I don't see a change in the Albany laws; I don't see an increase in cops coming; and I see other problems on the horizon," he says.

Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan tells the Voice it's true that the number of people incarcerated on drug charges has dropped, and the length of their sentences is significantly shorter. More defendants are eligible for probation, when they would not have been in the past.

In addition, the number of people in drug-treatment programs in the city has declined, too. Brennan says that in 2004 her office put 384 people in treatment. Last year, the number was just 84. Because they are not facing certain jail time, defendants are not choosing drug treatment as an alternative to prison the same way they used to.

Moreover, people convicted of second-tier felonies are now eligible for the six-month Shock program, when in the past they would not have qualified—a fact that once again puts criminals back on the street faster.

Gabriel Sayegh, New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which fought the Rockefeller laws for a long time, says it's ridiculous to tie the crime increase to the repeal of those laws.

"That's kind of like saying the weather is getting colder because people are running their air conditioners with the windows open and ignoring the fact that fall is coming," he says. "If they are correct, then how do they explain the crack epidemic in the 1980s? We had the laws then, and that didn't stop it. Crime was going up and down over the decades without any relationship to those laws."

Sayegh said the bad economy was more to blame for the increase in crime than anything else. "We've been in a fairly serious recession for years," he says.

As for Vallone, he says the councilman is ignoring the facts, and as for Brennan, he claims she was "upset she was no longer in control of the process."

Brennan, a longtime prosecutor who was closely involved in the Dub City case, is concerned about what she sees as a shift in attitude or perception among people involved in crimes. She partially attributes the bump in the crime numbers to this shift.

"My sense of things is that defendants are just more emboldened than I have seen in quite a while," she says. "That there are not the same consequences for criminal behavior that there were even 10 years ago. If the sense is that you're not going to face serious consequences, more people are going to step out of line."

Brennan says she bases this observation on remarks made by defendants. "We pick it up a lot in jail conversations," she says. "The attitudes are what will cause crime to spike. It's all about perception. And then the perception spreads and grows. That's what concerns me."

In the Dub City case, and another similar takedown in Brooklyn, Brennan says the criminal activity wasn't about getting rich off drugs or holding drug-dealing territory, like it was in the 1990s. It was more about vengeance and settling scores, and that is almost more disturbing.

"The drugs aren't the centerpiece of the activity," she says. "If it was about drugs, there at least would be some rationality to it. So you had this wanton and reckless gunplay and no regard for the bystanders. I have gotten the sense that these young people act like they are in a game, like a video game, where they are just firing at obstacles. There's just a real, real recklessness and disregard for human life, which is totally frightening."

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