The crime stats one and a half years into the de Blasio administration are clear. There have been 23 more murders than around this time in 2014, and New York City is on pace to register its second straight year of shooting increases.
What's up for debate is how to interpret the data.
On the one hand, it's critical to avoid overreacting. During the city's two-plus decade crime decline from 1990 through last year, murders increased on an annual basis six times, while dropping 85 percent overall. Any mayor within the last half-century would have eagerly taken the de Blasio numbers, either last year or this year's.
At the same time, if everyone assumes the increase is merely a blip, and it later reveals itself to have been a bonafide trend, that time of recognition may come too late for city officials to change course on policy.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has counseled New Yorkers to understand the crime uptick as “isolated to a relatively small set of gangs and crews,” which should be addressed by “do[ing] better in certain precincts.”
There is some truth to characterizing the problem as “isolated.” Had north Brooklyn not witnessed any murders so far this year, the 2015 citywide total would have been slightly lower than 2014's. The 47th precinct, which includes the Williamsbridge neighborhood in the north Bronx, was a high profile hotspot around this time last year, but has seen six fewer murders this year, while East New York in Brooklyn has seen six more.
If the standard to which we should hold the NYPD is “no worse than last year,” then the Bronx is having a great year. Murders, shootings and total crime in New York's lowest income borough are all effectively flat thus far in 2015. But unfortunately, there have not been enough Williamsbridges to offset the East New Yorks this year. The citywide numbers absolutely matter.
Two decades under Giuliani and Bloomberg gave many New Yorkers an expectation for excellence when it comes to public safety. How much lower can crime go? Why settle for simply being “the safest big city in America” when we could instead hold ourselves to the standard of London, which has nearly the same population but last year saw around 100 murders compared with New York's universally celebrated 333?
To keep pushing crime down, the de Blasio administration must not only increase efforts where crime is rising, as it has pledged to do, but also where crime remains steady or down, but still too high, such as Mott Haven in the Bronx (6 shooting so far this year, down from 13 by the same point in 2014).
The Bloomberg administration's aggressive use of stop, question and frisk was controversial, and many are glad that the number of stops has declined dramatically. But, whatever one thinks about Bloomberg's tactics, what cannot be doubted was the relentless commitment to making New York as safe as humanly possible.
The de Blasio administration is committed to excellence on economic policymaking. When discussing income inequality, de Blasio's rhetoric could not be loftier:
“We want every child to grow up in a society that says: ‘if you're willing to work hard, you've got a chance to live your dreams.' For generations, that was the promise of my city of New York. It was the definition of the American dream. But for too many, that promise…that dream…has steadily slipped away.”
We simply do not hear the mayor sound equally inspiring tones when discussing his approach to crime.
As the comments about “certain precincts” indicate, a creeping complacency has set in to the mayor's explanations about why shootings have risen. Experienced politicians know they must set priorities. It is likely that, all things being equal, de Blasio views driving down crime as less pressing than addressing income inequality. Elevating crime as a priority would require the mayor to spend more political capital, through, for example, hiring more cops and forthrightly defending the NYPD against its many critics.
In his 1998 memoir, “Turnaround,” New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton recounts that one of the earliest changes made by the Giuliani administration was to adopt the public relations policy that “where there is room for a benefit of the doubt, that benefit should go to the police.” The reelection last week of de Blasio critic Pat Lynch as president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, with 69 percent of the vote, suggests that most patrol officers are uncertain if the mayor has their back.
De Blasio's tendency to place greater emphasis on economic issues over crime is misguided for two reasons. First, New York City government has far more responsibility over public safety than income levels, whose driving causes are far more global in nature than urban crime.
Second, poor neighborhoods are where both crime and the demand for policing are highest. As I showed in my recent report, “Poverty and Progress IV,” the median total crime rate among New York City's lowest-income areas is about 40 percent greater than in the ten highest-income neighborhoods, and the median murder rate is more than six times greater.
Low-income communities dominate the top rankings of New York's busiest precincts, measured by volume of 911 calls. This distinctly “Progressive” administration above all should care about the problems unique to poor neighborhoods and that most certainly means crime.
During New York's bad old days, mayoral administrations set low standards on crime and frequently did not even meet those. Only de Blasio himself knows how much he cares about outperforming Giuliani and Bloomberg in this area. An end to New York's decades-long crime decline is not the same as a crime surge, but, for too many low-income communities, that amounts to a distinction without much of a difference.
This piece originally appeared in City & State.