Central Park Five Settlement: From a Tough on Crime Era to an Era of Reconciliation


On Thursday, the men wrongfully convicted of the 1989 rape and assault of a jogger in Central Park agreed to a $40 million settlement with the city. The amount corresponds to the roughly 40 total years the men, known Collectively as the “Central Park Five,” spent in prison after their conviction. Based on this calculation, Karey Wise, who spent 13 years in prison, the most among the five, will receive the most money the city has ever paid for a wrongful conviction.

The crime was high profile, and so were the trial, the eventual exonerations, and the long battle for a monetary settlement.

When the men were arrested, the city’s (and the country’s) primary criminal justice concern was public safety. It was the tough-on-crime era. As they reached their settlement, the criminal justice headlines are focused on wrongful convictions. It is an era of reconciliation and of learned lessons.

And now the city is trying to figure out how to apply those lessons.

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In 1989, the year the Central Park jogger, Trisha Meili, was assaulted, there were 1,905 murders in New York City. It was the highest tally on record. And then each of the next four years the city exceeded that number, with the murder rate peaking at 2,245 in 1990. The crime wave had hit the city swift and hard: the murder rate had doubled in 20 years.

Over that stretch, a string of high-profile crimes would dominate the headlines, capturing the essence of the city’s fear. There was serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz in 1977. In 1979 there was Etan Patz, the six-year-old who disappeared. World-famous ballroom dancer Diane Boardman was murdered in her apartment in 1986. In 1990, Brian Watkins was stabbed to death trying to protect his parents from a group of muggers.

“Fear of crime is a huge problem in America today,” New York City Police Commissioner Lee Brown told the Harvard Business Review in 1991. “In the large cities, people are afraid. They’re afraid to walk the streets.”

Perhaps no crime better captures the fear that gripped the city during those years than the case of the Central Park Five: a group of black and Hispanic teenage boys allegedly attacking an affluent white women in the city’s most treasured park. “Wilding” became a buzzword, encapsulating the bigger idea of the city’s bad elements encroaching on the turf of the city’s respectable citizens.

Even during the trial, protesters had argued that the five defendants were unfairly targeted by prosecutors and police officers who were rushing to declare victory; that the pressure to get convictions had turned the boys into scapegoats. The boys had claimed that detectives coerced them into confessions. Investigators had not found any trace of their DNA at the scene. Years later, a convicted rapist named Matias Reyes confessed to assaulting and raping Meili. Reyes’s DNA matched the DNA collected at the scene, and in 2002 all of the Central Park Five were exonerated.

By 2002, New York City was a different place than it had been a decade earlier. Eight months after the trial, in October 1990, Mayor David Dinkins announced his “Battle Plan Against Fear,” a $1.8 billion proposal that included adding 7,900 new officers to the NYPD. By 1995, there were fewer than 1,200 murders in the city, and by the time Bill de Blasio became mayor there were fewer than 500.

There is less panic in the city, and all parties can assess the criminal justice system with clear minds. Now a District Attorney candidate can win office not by vowing to lock people up, but by vowing to set prisoners free. Over his first six months on the job, Brooklyn D.A. Ken Thompson has dismissed charges against seven men who had had been convicted of murder during the crack era of the 1980s and 1990s. It’s much easier to focus on justice when the city is not overcome with fear.

Several factors caused the crime drop, so many that it is nearly impossible to distinguish between cause and correlation. The clearest, least debated factor, however, was the increase in police officers. The city, facing financial catastrophe, had cut the department’s workforce by more than a third in the ’70s.

When Dinkins announced his public safety plan in 1990, the NYPD had around 13,000 uniformed officers. Today there are 35,000, and during the recent budget negotiations, the mayor and city council again were faced with the question of whether there should be more.

The city has experienced a slight increase shootings through the first half of 2014. As city leaders worked on the new budget, the council proposed adding 1,000 officers to the force, which would cost $100 million. This, proponents argued, would help increase patrol presence and decrease the money spent on overtime.

But the Citizens Budget Commission challenged the recommendation earlier this week, stating that “the case for adding 1,000 officers is weak; negotiations should instead be focused on ways to control overtime, moving officers performing civilian roles to patrol and administrative restructuring within the department.”

On Thursday, barely one hour after news of the Central Park Five settlement broke, de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced that they had finalized the new budget. It did not include funding for additional police officers.