As he left the wake for slain police officer Wilbert Mora, NYPD Chief of Department Kenneth Corey spoke with anger and resignation about the high tide of guns and shooters washing over the city.
“You’ve got career criminals in possession of illegal guns, assault rifles, high-capacity magazines,” Corey told reporters outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Cops are “putting themselves in danger to go get these guns off the street, and yet the same people they are arresting are back out walking the street and, all too often, now using the guns against them.”
The weeks leading to Mora’s February 3 funeral had seen a baby girl shot in the head in the Bronx; the execution of a 19-year-old Burger King cashier in East Harlem; the murders of Mora and his partner, Jason Rivera, in a hallway ambush by a man with a stolen Glock .45; and the nonfatal shootings of three other cops in separate incidents.
These were the first weeks of Eric Adams’s mayoralty. Adams had promised that common-sense policing and social investment would reverse a spike in crime that’s seen murders rise by 50% and shootings double in the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic started. This year’s wave of high-profile violence put both the mayor and the national Democratic Party on the defensive; according to Fox News, New York had become a war zone. There was no time to waste.
In late January, Adams released a 15-page “Blueprint to End Gun Violence,” a list of initiatives to suppress gunfire and the circumstances that promote it. The plan contains social initiatives that include expanding the use of “violence interrupters,” who work in communities to defuse local tensions; summer jobs for 100,000 city teenagers; and extended support for young people leaving the city’s foster care program.
But the mayor’s main thrust was to confidently blame skyrocketing shootings on the state’s 2019 bail reform law and a 2017 “Raise the Age” law that prevents 16- and 17-year-olds from being charged as adults. Bail reform eliminated cash bail for most people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, and made it easier for some violent felony defendants to post bail. Thousands of New Yorkers were spared pretrial detention in the city’s violent, dysfunctional jails.
The state legislature has rejected Adams’s calls to amend those laws, leaving the mayor and the NYPD to search for the right nightmarish defendant to use as a violent avatar of bail reform. So far, they’ve come up short.
During a sometimes combative visit to Albany last month, Adams invoked the recent spate of violence to reject an invitation from Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, of Brownsville, to debate criminal justice reform. “I don’t think you should debate me,” Adams said. “I think you should debate the 11-month-old baby’s mother. You should debate the two police officers that we lost.”
Walker, unimpressed, retorted that she had lost her own brother to gun violence. But the bigger picture is that the man who shot infant Catherine Arias hasn’t yet been arrested. No one knows if he was on the street thanks to bail reform. (The killer of officers Mora and Rivera was from Baltimore; his crime was irrelevant to pretrial release.)
After serial misdemeanor offender Assamad Nash was charged with murdering Christina Yuna Lee in her Chinatown apartment, Adams called him “a poster person for a failing system.…” But a Daily News review found that “Nash’s record shows neither bail reform laws nor Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s progressive prosecution policies factored into his freedom at the time of the nightmarish stabbing.”
So far, city and state data indicate that criminal justice reform isn’t a meaningful factor in the return of shootings to 2011 levels. “To try to pin this as a bail reform issue is missing the true drivers,” says Jullian Harris-Calvin of the Vera Institute for Justice.
Of the 6,847 people arraigned on a gun charge between January 2020 and July 2021, 169 were rearrested with a firearm while awaiting trial, of whom 145—or 0.02%—were charged with a violent felony, according to state data reviewed by the Voice.
“Right now, all the indicators from the courts and the DAs is that people released pursuant to New York’s bail reform law are not reoffending at a rate that would account for the overall increase in crime,” Jorge Camacho, a former Manhattan prosecutor and former senior counsel at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said in an interview. “There’s something else at work.”
Last week, the NYPD reported that crime went up a brutal 58.25% in February compared with the same month in 2021, with increases in every major category including murder, rape, and robbery. The NYPD and its allies, unnerved by the speed with which shootings have increased since 2019 after 25 years of declines, have doggedly blamed bail reform, while also accusing the courts of leaving potential gunmen on the street by moving too slowly on weapons possession cases. “If restaurants are open, courts can be open too,” former police commissioner Bill Bratton told the Voice.
“We managed to cut the pending backlog in criminal court cases in half,” Judge George Grasso, the state judiciary’s point man on gun-related proceedings, said in response to the criticism. Still, the number of pending gun prosecutions in State Supreme Court, where felonies are prosecuted, has risen thanks to continuing arrests. Police seized nearly 6,000 illegal guns in 2021. “We don’t get to hit the pause button,” Grasso told the Voice. “We’re seeing significant increases in violent crime.”
So, what’s behind the increase?
“Trauma,” says Tina Luongo, a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Society. “More than two years of trauma, of a pandemic that has eviscerated communities.” Almost two years into the pandemic, the city was still down 421,000 jobs, with huge hits to food services, retail, and construction. In December 2021, unemployment for Black New Yorkers stood at 15.1%; for Hispanics, it was 10.2%. “There’s no denying the influence of COVID-19,” Bratton said.
“Is it more people shooting, or the same number of people were shooting more?” asked Liz Glazer, who ran the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice during Bill De Blasio’s administration. “Either way, it signals that whatever the brake was on somebody picking up a gun and shooting, it was broken.” In the summer of 2020, as the city grappled with mass death, widespread illness, and rolling street protests following the murder of George Floyd, fewer witnesses came forward to help police investigate serious crimes, and gun arrests fell.
It wasn’t only businesses, schools, and courts that shut down for extended periods. Essential neighborhood services also stopped cold. “Kids were out of school, people are stuck at home, they lost their job. All of those preexisting drivers of violence that we already had, the pandemic made them worse,” Ramon Caba, deputy project director for neighborhood safety initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation, told the Voice.
Father Luis Barrios of Holyrood Episcopal Church, a progressive bastion in Washington Heights, described the pandemic closure of local recreation programs as a major factor. The shut-downs “didn’t stop the young people from being in the street, but doing what?” asked Barrios. “That’s why we started seeing more devastation in the community.” In the Bronx, the number of 16- and 17-year-olds arrested for gun possession rose more than 500% between 2019 and 2021, from 29 to 166.
Bail reform took effect in January 2020, just as COVID-19 arrived, with New York the brutalized ground zero. Since then, violent crime has increased in both states that have and states that haven’t softened their bail laws. Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, and Arkansas—none known for their reforming impulses—boast the five worst homicide rates in America; New York is 37th.
“This isn’t a bail reform thing,” said Miriam Popper, a former head of pretrial initiatives at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “This is a pandemic thing.” And the pandemic lingers.
Adams’s gun plan highlights the city’s Crisis Management System, which embeds “violence interrupters” in troubled neighborhoods to cool tensions among “high-risk” residents. Young men served by the system “reported decreasing support for the use of violence to settle personal disputes,” according to a John Jay College assessment.
Strangely, Adams’s blueprint doesn’t mention the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP), a complex program to support residents at 15 city housing projects that in 2014 accounted for 20% of all crime committed in more than 300 Housing Authority developments. While the program focuses on community participation, youth training, and coordinating city services such as trash collection, data shows that from 2010 to 2019, the felony crime rate in MAP developments fell 7.5% compared with a 3.8% decline in non-MAP developments. The city is now working to expand MAP to more than 30 locations.
While crime went up in MAP developments in 2020, by late 2021 these communities were already “outpacing the city and Housing Authority in decreases in violent crime, decreases in index crime, decreases in shooting, and decreases in murders,” the program’s outgoing executive director, Renita Francois, told the Aspen Institute. Shootings in MAP areas declined 12% from 2020 to 2021.
New York still has the lowest big-city crime rate in America, but broad statistics won’t restore confidence. Seventy-four percent of city voters think crime is a “very serious problem,” according to a February 9 Quinnipiac poll. Adams’s emphasis is clearly on cops and courts as the primary remedy. It’s an open question whether the Democrats who control Albany will hold the line on bail reform and Raise the Age, or bow to political pressure.
For now, the mayor says he’ll lean on a reconstituted anti-gun unit to “stabilize the violence” and get weapons off the street. Long-term, the city needs more. Eric Adams’ blueprint gives a lot of ink to community-based solutions. Will he follow through on anti-crime initiatives that don’t involve handcuffs?
“We’ve relied on police to really be the only method we use to reduce crime,” said Glazer, a former federal prosecutor. “Both the crisis management system and MAP have shown that they have a lot of power in changing people’s behavior through different means, and they need to be supported and built out—with as much focus as we use with law enforcement.”
“So much of what the mayor talks about—it’s spot on,” said Luongo. “His recognition of the role of mental health and how we’ve used our criminal justice system for hospitalization of people who need care. Jobs, summer youth programs, ways to empower young people—again he’s spot on. The need to invest in communities. That’s what works. Locking them up doesn’t.”
SIDEBAR: A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS
During February 9 remarks to the State Senate, and later on Twitter, Mayor Eric Adams presented arrest statistics to support his argument that state judges should be allowed to consider a defendant’s “dangerousness” when deciding bail—a discretion enjoyed by judges in the 49 other states and the federal courts—and that some teens arrested with guns should be charged as adults.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Adams wrote. “When people who perpetuate gun violence are on the street, gun violence goes up. It’s that simple.”
There’s nothing simple, however, about Hizzonor’s numbers. While the state legislature has so far rejected calls to amend bail reform and Raise the Age, Adams and Co. – relying on bad data – continue to push the narrative that progressive criminal justice measures have pulled New York back to the dark ages. Let’s pick apart the cherry-pickings:
Adams’s Claim: Homicide arrests of suspects “out on bail” for a gun offense rose from 15 in 2019 (before bail reform took effect) to 40 in 2021.
Context: If these 40 suspects were out on cash bail, and not under supervised release (a provision of the bail reform law), most would just as easily have posted bail prior to the reforms.
The source of Adams’s numbers isn’t clear; the mayor’s press office didn’t return messages seeking comment. However, according to an analysis by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the number of defendants arraigned for murder while free pending trial on a gun possession charge rose from 31 to 41 between 2019 and 2020, before falling to 18 in 2021. That’s 0.7% of all gun defendants released before trial.
Adams’s Claim: Forty-one defendants were rearrested for firing shots while “out on bail” for a gun offense in 2019, vesus 117 in 2021.
Context: Adams’s numbers show a 285% increase in people arrested for firing shots while awaiting trial for a gun offense, which outpaces the city’s overall (and dramatic) increase in shootings. The source of the mayor’s numbers is unclear. According to city data, the number of defendants arrested for firing shots while awaiting trial for gun possession increased from 27 in 2019 to 43 in 2020, before falling to 19 (well below the pre-bail reform level) in 2021.
The share of gun possession defendants arrested for a violent felony while awaiting trial follows a similar pattern: 11.3% in 2019; 12.7% in 2020; and a decline to 5.8% in 2021.
Adams’s Claim: From 2018 to 2020, the number of defendants arrested for a new violent felony while awaiting trial for an earlier violent felony arrest rose from 6.5% to 12%.
Context: Criminal justice experts say the most important factor in this increase is that violent felony defendants on bail or supervised release are spending more time on the street due to delays in the courts, giving them more opportunities to re-offend. In 2021, New York had a monthly average of 9,329 people with an open violent felony case out on pretrial release, according to data from the nonprofit Criminal Justice Agency. Of those, an average of 100 were rearrested each month on a new violent felony charge—about 1.07% of all violent felony defendants.
Adams’s Claim: Since 2019, half of the 2,500 juveniles charged under Raise the Age were rearrested; 10% were rearrested for gun possession.
Context: According to Criminal Justice Agency data, 48% of 16-year-olds arrested and released in the first year after the Raise the Age law were rearrested. More than one-third were rearrested on a felony charge and more than a quarter were rearrested for a violent felony. These rearrest rates are higher than those from before Raise the Age took effect.
Adams’s Claim: “Last year, 10% of individuals under 18 were arrested by the NYPD with a gun. Six years ago, that was only 1%.”
Context: Here, the mayor uses numbers from six years ago, before Raise the Age diverted most teens in trouble with the law to Family Court, and reduced the number of juveniles criminally charged from more than 20,000 to 3,600, thus increasing the percentage of teens charged with more serious crimes, like gun possession. Still, gun arrests of kids under 18 increased by 250% from 2018 to 2021, according to city data. ❖