For the First Time in 20 Years, New York's Crime Rate Is on the Rise
Illustration by John W. Tomac
In April 2011, a 16-year-old Bronx gang member named Dontae Murray was shot to death in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx. His associates blamed two rival gangs and went looking for revenge.
The police caught Murray's killer fairly quickly, but over the next 16 months, the murder sparked a bitter street war between Murray's set, Dub City, and the two other gangs, 280 and WTG—a street war in which the gang members acted, in the words of a veteran prosecutor, like they were in a video game shooting at obstacles, not people. At least 14 people were shot. A series of other shooting incidents was linked to the dispute, along with numerous beatings and strong-arm robberies.
By the time police and the Special Narcotics Prosecutor's office took down Murray's key associates at the end of August, the warfare had driven up the crime rate in the 44th Precinct, causing a spike this year of 15 percent, and 19 percent compared with 2010. Shooting victims and shooting incidents jumped by 14 percent.
Police logged close to 100 more felony assaults in the precinct. And the total so far, 490 assaults, is almost identical to the number recorded in 2001, just before the Bloomberg administration came to power.
The tabloids focused on the rival gangs using Facebook to gloat over shootings and text messages to arrange the violence, but there was another, larger issue that the rash of violence suggested.
For the first time in 20 years, New York City might record an overall rise in crime.
In West Harlem, 125th Street has become a front line for tensions between gangs in two large public housing developments, the Grant Houses and the Manhattanville Houses. There is a history of clashes between rival groups from the development going back decades, but for a good period of the new century, there had been a truce.
Over the past two years, however, that truce has been replaced by a renewed series of fights, punctuated at times by gunfire. Derrick Haynes, a longtime community activist, described incidents that started as name-calling among kids and led to rock and bottle skirmishes, followed by fistfights, beatings, slashing, and, eventually, gunfire.
That violence made headlines a year ago with the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Grant resident and promising basketball player Tayshana Murphy, a crime linked to a beef between the rival gangs. Just two weeks ago, a Manhattanville kid stabbed a Grant youth, and was caught outside a bodega that is often a flash point for the skirmishes.
This year, crime in the 26th Precinct is up by 4.5 percent, but there has been a 26 percent jump in assaults, partly fueled by the Grant/Manhattanville clashes. Now, community leaders are trying to come up with methods to deal with the violence.
"It is worse, consistently worse," says Sarah Martin, the president of the tenant council at the Grant Houses. "It's an increase in gang activity. There are a lot more gangs. There's nothing for kids to do with their time."
On a recent evening, the 61st Precinct community council held its monthly meeting in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. Because crime is up 46 percent in the precinct—the largest percentage increase in the city—one would have expected a long discussion of the causes of the crime, including a 70 percent jump in robberies and a 44 percent jump in burglaries, and what was being done to deal with it.
Instead, the residents who showed up for the nearly three-hour meeting were almost exclusively interested in other things: traffic patterns, people speeding on Ocean Avenue, and civic disputes, like a toxic conflict between two neighbors that absorbed half the meeting. In fact, the crime increase hardly came up. Afterward, the council's president, Yves Etienne, professed not to be aware of it.
The crime rate has become perhaps the single most important gauge of the city's health, and for 20 consecutive years, that rate has been dropping—something Mayor Michael Bloomberg never seems to miss an opportunity to mention.
But what's happening this year in places like Morris Heights, West Harlem, and Sheepshead Bay are just examples of a larger trend across the city that is slowly coming into focus. For the first time in two decades, the year will likely end with an increase in crime.
Although the homicide rate continues to drop—it's down 16 percent so far this year—a series of other crime indicators shows the opposite. First, there's the citywide crime rate, which is based on seven felony categories: murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, grand larceny, and auto theft.
That number is up by just more than 4 percent compared with 2011, and it's up more than 5 percent compared to 2010, which suggests the upward trend has held steady for two years. Crime is also up in each of the five boroughs, which means the rise is not isolated to one particular area.
Five of those seven major crime categories show increases. And though shootings show a modest 3 percent increase citywide, the percentages are higher in Manhattan, Queens, North Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
[The uptick in shooting numbers we reported were based on year to date figures through Sept. 2. Since then, there has been a small turnaround. Through Sept. 23, the figures now show a .4 percent decline citywide in shooting incidents and a 2.6 percent decline in shooting victims. The change appears to be fueled by a steep drop in shootings over the past month, compared to the same month last year.]
As for individual precincts, crime is up in 47 of the city's 76 police precincts, NYPD figures show. Seventeen precincts are showing double-digit percentage increases through September 9.
The 101st Precinct in Rockaway, Queens, has shown a 42 percent increase. A trio of adjacent Manhattan precincts—the 23rd, 24th, and 25th, on both sides of the north end of Central Park—each have had increases of more than 16 percent. There are also significant increases in unexpected neighborhoods. The wealthy Upper East Side's 19th Precinct has shown a 15 percent climb in crime, largely due to grand larcenies.
Grand larcenies and robberies are largely fueling the increase—10 percent, or 2,534 cases, of grand larceny and 5 percent, or 598 more cases, of robberies. The increase in grand larcenies has been attributed to a rise in thefts of personal electronic devices, like smartphones and tablets. "The theft of Apple phones and other handheld devices drove the spike in robberies and larceny this year," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly posted to the NYPD's Facebook page. "Individuals alert to their surroundings are less likely to become victims, and Operation ID will help those whose property is lost or stolen to get it back." Meanwhile, only two precincts in the city—the 32nd and 34th in Washington Heights—are showing double-digit declines.
The multiyear trends are also somewhat troubling. For example, NYPD data shows that the total number of robberies has increased in each of the past three years. Felony assaults have increased in each of the past four years. The number of rapes has increased in every full year since 2009.
In public housing—and there are more than 300 such developments in the city—major crime is up 14 percent, with robberies and assaults each up about 20 percent, according to a report in the New York Daily News. Crime is also up in the subways.
And even though the NYPD only tracks crime in the 31 largest parks, those figures are showing significant increases in major crimes, according to NYC Park Advocates.
The trend also holds for misdemeanor crime numbers. Misdemeanor assaults are up 9 percent and petit larceny, 6 percent. Misdemeanor sex crimes are up 11 percent. Possession of stolen property cases—another misdemeanor—have gone up in every full year since 2008, along with misdemeanor drug, weapon, and sex offenses.
The crime numbers for New York City kept by the state show that aggravated assault increased in Brooklyn in every year from 2008 to 2011, as did violent crime. The same goes for Queens.
This past summer, the city was afflicted by the same kinds of random episodes of horror seen every year when the heat rises and tempers unravel: the July 29 hammer attack in City Hall Park, which left a victim with a fractured skull; the murder outside the Empire State Building of a salesman by a disgruntled former co-worker and his subsequent shooting by police, who also wounded nine bystanders; the rampage by a mentally ill man in Times Square that led to police shooting him.
The July 21 slashing in midtown by two men of a third. The July 29 attack by six drunk young women on an elderly man who complained they were talking too loud on the downtown 6 train. The July 22 murder of four-year-old Lloyd Morgan, who was hit by a stray bullet near his Bronx home. The July 29 shooting of six, including a two-year-old girl, in Brownsville. The night at Rucker Park in upper Manhattan when a gunman shot five people. The stabbings at the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn. The September 10 slashing of two people by a woman on a rampage at a subway station in Jamaica, Queens.
Between July 2 and 8, 77 people were shot across the city. On the Fourth of July weekend alone, seven people were murdered, and 21 were shot.
The NYPD has earned praise for its computerized crime-fighting strategy known as CompStat, so why does it seem that the city has hit a turning point in 2012? What has changed?
Is it the stubbornly bad economy and the 10 percent unemployment rate? Is it the fact that the NYPD has shrunk by 6,000 officers since 2001? Is it that the NYPD's counterterrorism strategies are pulling too many cops out of their home precincts? Has the controversy over alleged manipulation of the crime statistics forced precinct commanders to more accurately report their numbers? Are we taking it easier on criminals? Or is the reason more elusive, a change in attitudes among people involved in crime?
The Bloomberg administration has yet to take a hit over this increase, and Police Commissioner Kelly's approval numbers remain high. The most recent Quinnipiac poll showed Kelly with a 64 percent approval rating among New Yorkers—a rating that has remained constant throughout the year.
In July, the mayor declared that the city doesn't need more police officers and said he doubted more cops would further reduce the murder rate. He also denied the city was in the middle of a crime wave after the rash of shootings between July 2 and 8.
"When we came into office, we reduced the size by 4,000 or 5,000, and we've maintained that for 10 years, and every year, we've brought crime down," Bloomberg told reporters. "What'd I miss here?"
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."
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."
Molloy College professor John Eterno is skeptical of NYPD statistics, but he does think there is an increase in overall crime.
Questions about the accuracy of NYPD crime statistics erupted in 2010 with a number of articles—including a series in the Voice—that examined cases of police downgrading crimes or refusing to take complaints in order to show decreases in their precincts. The easiest crime category to manipulate is grand larceny, which is based on the value of a stolen item. Grand larceny is also the category that is showing the largest increase this year.
"I have no doubt that crime is inching up, but regardless of what they are reporting, it's hard to read anything into these numbers until someone outside the department seriously examines them," Eterno says. "And most importantly, the NYPD can do integrity testing, which is something they did for the ticket-fixing scandal. Underreporting of crime is much more serious."
Eterno and his colleague at John Jay College Eli Silverman released a study over the summer based on interviews with 1,900 retired police officers of all ranks. That study found that pressure increased in the Bloomberg era to manipulate crime complaints, and more than eight in 10 said they had fudged reports. That pressure emanated from CompStat meetings in which unit commanders were harangued to lower their stats.
Eterno and Silverman memorably quote one commander who told them that a deputy commissioner gave a seminar in downgrading crimes. He told them, the officer said, to "consolidate burglaries . . . make reporting a crime difficult to discourage victims from following through, [discourage] schools from reporting thefts ... shred reports for those with no insurance ... classify retail items at wholesale value ... [change] attempted assault to reckless endangerment."
In January 2011, Kelly announced the creation of a panel of former federal prosecutors to look into whether the crime statistics were accurate. The review was supposed to take three to six months. It has now been 21 months with no report and no indication of when the review will be completed.
As for that big increase in crime in Sheepshead Bay's 61st Precinct, Captain John Chell, the precinct commander, told the Voice that the struggle is against its own success. "For a while, the 61st Precinct was leading the city in crime reduction," he says. "We were just so low at one point we had to bounce back."
Chell says the economy is driving the citywide increase. "Crime in the city has been dropping for years. It has to bounce back. It's the same as the precinct," he says.
Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder, who represents the Rockaways, where the 101st Precinct is showing that 44 percent increase, says a boom in development and population growth in the area is a good thing but has also had a negative effect. "It's what the mayor calls the problem of our success," he says. "Rockaway has been growing by leaps and bounds, and with that comes crime."
Goldfeder added that a decline in staffing in the two precincts that cover the district hasn't helped. "Our staffing levels at precincts all across Queens are at an all-time low," he says. "Our commanders have been doing a tremendous job despite that. I would hope those cuts are proportional, all across the board."
Back in West Harlem, Derrick Haynes, the community activist, showed a reporter around the neighborhood and offered his own theories on why violence increased again after that period of relative calm. He showed the bodega where kids from the rival developments cross paths and highlighted the lack of activities for them.
"We used to have an arrangement where kids from Manhattanville would go play on the outdoor courts at Grant, and kids from Grant would play in the community center at Manhattanville, and it worked," Haynes says. "But then, the community center was closed for five years for renovations that were only supposed to take one year, and the outdoor courts at Grant fell into disrepair. Those things started the conflict all over again."
Haynes described incidents that started as name-calling among kids and eventually escalate to gunfire. Two weeks ago, a Grant youth was stabbed by a Manhattanville kid, who was caught outside the same bodega.
"Now, the community center is open again, but the kids from Grant won't go because of all the fighting," he says.
Haynes then took the reporter to an enduring symbol of this lack of action to deal with the violence: a large asphalt playground at Manhattanville. He paused and pointed to the painted lines of a basketball court. "Notice anything?" he asked.
"There are no hoops," the reporter replied.
"That's right. They built a court but forgot the baskets, and it's been that way for years," he said.
Some time ago, the community reached an agreement with Columbia University, which is building a massive technology campus on the western end of 125th Street. The school pledged $3 million to the two housing complexes for community programs. That money has been tied up in red tape for more than a year, and only recently has any movement taken place. Haynes would like to fund an after-school program, athletic programs, and a construction-job training program.
Kofi Boateng, the director of the West Harlem Development Corporation, says the money is now available. He is just waiting for proposals and a sign-off by the city housing authority. "We have a deep interest in improving security, helping young people get jobs, job training, and keeping them in school to reduce the violence," he says.
There is some urgency, Haynes says. "It's been a year since Tayshana Murphy's murder, and since then, there's been no gang-intervention program initiated," he says. "I just don't understand how we as responsible adults and community leaders can act as if there's nothing wrong. Are we waiting for more kids to be gunned down?"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.