This Crime Didn’t Count


Sean Eden doesn’t know who hit him on the left side of his face at around 8 p.m. on September 24, 2004, at the corner of DeKalb and Washington avenues in Fort Greene. The blow came from the side or behind, but as Eden dropped to his knees from the impact, he says he saw a black guy running away.

When the cops arrived, they put the bleeding Eden in their backseat, set off to scout the neighborhood for suspects, and chased down three black men, including one who matched Eden’s rough description of his assailant. But asked by police to finger one of the men as his assailant, Eden refused. He couldn’t tell, he says, because he couldn’t see: His left eye was damaged so seriously that a paramedic was pessimistic that doctors would be able to save it. Eden was “seeing silver”—a sign that his retina was swelling. Medical records show that Eden told the ambulance crew and doctors that he thought he’d been hit with a baseball bat.

“When I got there, my friend said my knees buckled,” says Kristen Collins, a friend of Eden’s who arrived at the scene shortly after the attack. “It was like molasses, blood dripping off his face. Like strings to the ground. I felt like whenever you see war movies, people in stretchers, that’s what he looked like, but he was standing up. There was blood everywhere, all over his clothes, all over his face. It was reflective in the light too.” Kari Krome, another friend, remembers that “his ears had filled up full of blood. And it had congealed. It was hanging down in big strings. It was running down his neck and also out of his nose. It was really, really bad.”

It was just the kind of random, violent attack that used to have New Yorkers scared of their own sidewalks, and gave the city a worldwide reputation as a nice place to visit if you wanted to be raped, mugged, or murdered. That was before a historic reduction in crime that began in the mid 1990s thanks to some combination of social forces, good policing, and the aggressive policies of three mayors. Two of those mayors—Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg—were re-elected based in part on the rosy crime numbers.

The 20 percent drop in crime since Bloomberg took office in 2002 was a powerful argument for his re-election, all the more so because recent Mayor’s Management Reports indicate that Bloomberg, Commissioner Ray Kelly, and Chief Joe Esposito accomplished this feat with 3,000 fewer cops than Rudy had.

But some crimes don’t make the stats.

Like what happened to Sean Eden.

An advanced-life-support ambulance arrived at the scene of Eden’s assault at 8:21 p.m. A report from the ambulance crew indicates that Eden—whose medical condition was described as “potentially unstable”—was strapped to a backboard, fitted with a cervical collar, placed in a head immobilizer, and administered oxygen during his ride to Bellevue Hospital. Notes from the triage unit at Bellevue describe Eden’s as an “urgent” case, and
depict his symptoms as “pain to left side of head and eye, plus swelling and ecchymosis [or bruising].” He was hospitalized for four days and given intravenous fluids and painkillers. Doctors explained to him that he had suffered both a blowout fracture of the lower part of his eye socket and a “rim” fracture to the top of his left cheekbone. During surgery, pieces of bone had to be extracted from his sinus, a plate was screwed to his remaining bones, and a titanium mesh was used to reconstruct the damaged area of Eden’s face. All told, the surgery, hospital stay, and follow-up visits cost over $20,000, but Eden was assisted by the state Crime Victims Board in paying those bills.

As early as the day after the attack, Eden (a guitarist in the recently disbanded Luna) was able to see blurry images in the affected eye. Because the bad guy’s blow reshaped his cornea, he suffers from slight astigmatism. He also has bouts of double vision when he looks at something at close range because his injured eye was reset at a slightly different angle. And since the tubes and ducts that keep the left eye clean were damaged, Eden suffers from excessive pressure in his eye and must take the same kind of medication as people with glaucoma. He says he will have to for the rest of his life.

None of the figures in the MMR actually contradict the basic idea that crime has fallen in the past four years. However, some of the numbers hint that crime trends are not comprehensively described by the marquee “20 percent lower” figure that the mayor and newspaper editorial boards like to quote.

For example, the number of people arrested in the city increased by 35,000 from 2002 to 2005, a jump of 11 percent. Arrests don’t correlate perfectly with crimes because not every crime leads to an arrest, more than one person can be arrested for a single crime, and arrests could be for crimes committed years earlier. But in general, why is the city arresting more people if there are fewer crimes?

Other numbers paint a confusing picture. Admissions to city jails are down, but only by about 5 percent since 2002, a far smaller drop than in crime overall. The number of shooting victims and incidents went up last year, but only very slightly. The number of quality-of-life summonses—a hallmark of the Giuliani years—has shot up 53 percent under Bloomberg. And while emergency 911 calls are down, the number of police radio runs is up.

Interestingly, the number of felony arrests has dropped since 2002. So the increase in arrests is entirely due to a 15 percent leap in arrests for things other than felonies, a category that includes misdemeanors, like assault in the third degree.

In December 2004, almost three months after he was attacked, Eden went to the 88th Precinct to obtain the police report of the crime. He was surprised at what he read: “Victim states unknown perps struck him in the eye with closed fist causing laceration to left eye and then fled in unknown direction.”

Nothing about a baseball bat. Nothing about the guy Eden saw running away. And the report classifies the crime as an assault in the third degree.

New York City doesn’t count misdemeanors as assaults in city statistics of major crimes. That means that as far as the much heralded crime numbers go, the assault on Eden did not occur.

Theoretically, if there were 10,000 assaults like the one in Fort Greene on September 24, 2004, and the police reported them all as misdemeanors, the crime rate would not have been affected one bit.

Of course, this was just one incident, so it wouldn’t have mattered much either way: There were almost 18,000 felony assaults recorded in the city’s last fiscal year. But the case illustrates the ambiguous language of New York’s laws and the role they play in determining what crimes actually make the stats.

For example, Section 120.00 of the state penal code describes assault in the third degree (a class A misdemeanor) as occurring when a person “with intent to cause physical injury to another person . . . causes such injury.” Section 120.05 depicts assault in the second degree, a felony, as when a person “with intent to cause serious physical injury . . . causes such injury.” Was Eden’s injury serious, or just an injury?

At last count, there were 20,000 fewer crimes a year in New York City compared to 2002. The vast majority of that decline is due to fewer burglaries and auto thefts. But violent crimes like murder, rape, robbery, and assault are also down. The bulk of that decrease (about 60 percent of it) reflects a drop in felonious assault—a charge that, as Eden’s case demonstrates, depends on how hard the cops say you got hit.