Home Posts How New York City Politics Was Upended By A Historic Rise In Crime
How New York City Politics Was Upended By A Historic Rise In Crime

How New York City Politics Was Upended By A Historic Rise In Crime

A group of young men involved in a dispute with members of a rival gang shot up a cookout in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, last July, injuring three young men and killing a 1-year-old boy, Davell Gardner Jr.

Gardner's death exemplified the tragic toll of New York City's current, unprecedented surge in violent crime.

Overall, shootings in the nation's largest city increased by 97% from 2019 to 2020, while murders increased by 45% during the same time period, and the carnage has continued into 2021, with the city experiencing 50% more murders than this time two years ago.

The crime wave has disproportionately impacted New York City's low-income Black and Latino communities.

When people believe that crime is on the rise, whether it is real or perceived, voters' preferences tend to shift more conservative.

Fordham University's Christina Greer.

Incidents such as a daytime execution-style murder in Park Slope, the crossfire wounding of three tourists in Times Square, and the gang rape of a man walking through Central Park at night have all evoked an era of lawlessness and insecurity that New Yorkers thought had passed.

Although homicides and other forms of violence are still a fraction of what they were in the early 1990s, the rapid increase in incidents has thrown the politics of New York City's crowded mayoral race into disarray.

The top issue in the Democratic primary on June 22 is now public safety, which will almost certainly determine the general election winner.

The importance of crime has benefited the field's more moderate candidates, delivering a jolt of reactionary energy to a city whose politics had been shifting to the left for years.

“Whether it’s real or perceived, when people believe crime is on the rise, voters tend to become more conservative in their preferences,” explained Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University and co-host of the New York City politics podcast “FAQ NYC.”

The competition among mayoral candidates over who has the best short-term solutions to the rise in crime has come as a relief to New Yorkers who believe that more cops and harsher penalties are needed to stem the tide of violence.

It is, however, a source of concern for progressives, who fear that politicians' desire to control City Hall will undo years of progress on police and criminal justice reform without reducing crime in the long run.

“I am concerned because it appears that candidates are feeding that fear,” said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a progressive Democrat who has not endorsed anyone in the mayoral race, adding that “people are more concerned about elections than actually addressing the issue.”

Williams continued, referring to former President Donald Trump, that “this nation has just gone past, nationally, a candidate feeding fear, which is simply not a healthy thing to do.”

It's telling, for example, that the two front-runners, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, have been engaged in a tug-of-war over the tough-on-crime mantle.

Yang, who has cultivated an air of ideological ambiguity at times, abandoned all pretense after the May 8 Times Square shooting, launching an attack on calls to “defund the police.”

“The truth is that New York City cannot afford to defund the police,” Yang said, adding that “when I talk to New Yorkers every single day, I get a very different message.”

Although the two men have similar platforms, such as putting more cops in subway stations and resurrecting the city's plainclothes anti-crime unit, only Adams, a former police captain and the field's leading Black candidate, has made improving policing the centerpiece of his campaign from the beginning.

The crime has enraged the community, and it is causing pain. Children cannot play in the park.

The United Clergy Commission's president is Gerald Seabrooks.

In response to Yang's remarks in Times Square, Adams, who campaigned on being a "blue-collar mayor," accused Yang of being concerned about crime only when it began to affect tourist areas and middle-class neighborhoods.

“It took a shooting in Andrew Yang’s backyard for him to wake up, realize there was a crime problem, and stand up to gun violence,” he explained.

Adams' portrayal of Yang is not entirely accurate; for example, when he announced his candidacy, Yang promised to address violent crime, and in February, he laid out a plan for public safety in the New York Daily News.

But Adams' deep roots in and relationships with low-income and working-class Black and Latino communities in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx helped him secure the endorsement of the United Clergy Commission, or UCC. The UCC is an influential group of more than 100 Black and Latino Christian ministers who have banded together to combat the violent crime that plagues the communities they serve.

“The community is incensed with the crime. It hurts. Kids can’t go out to play in the park,” UCC President Gerald Seabrooks, bishop of the Rehoboth Cathedral in Bedford-Stuyvesant, told Stardia, his anger palpable. “We want to be treated like any other community, and we want the police to do their job.”

Former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who is positioning herself as a capable turnaround specialist, has called for more New York Police Department resources to be dedicated to combating gun violence and for the city's gun buy-back rebate amount to be increased from $200 per gun to $2,000.

“I intend to give the NYPD the resources they need to protect New Yorkers and prosecute gun violence,” Garcia said at a news conference on May 11, a day after receiving the New York Times editorial board’s endorsement.

Meanwhile, the main progressive candidates in the race have been forced to campaign on the terms of the crime hawks, despite years of cultivating the activist left and endorsing calls for funding cuts.

Rather than setting the terms of the debate and putting moderates on the defensive to explain their plans to address homelessness, mental health issues, and other phenomena that the left believes are root causes of crime, the left-leaning candidates have worked hard to bolster their public safety credentials without abandoning their core supporters.

To that end, city Comptroller Scott Stringer and former Mayor Bill de Blasio counselor Maya Wiley have both attempted to argue that there is no tradeoff between public safety and increased police accountability.

Stringer has stated that having grown up in Manhattan in the 1970s, he is aware of how devastating crime can be to the fabric of the city. In addition to allocating more police resources to homicide detectives, he would send more mental health professionals into the subways rather than cops and make a violence interruption program available in more city neighborhoods.

“We need to keep our city safe, but we can’t over-police Black and brown kids,” he told reporters outside the Fairway supermarket on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on May 9.

I understand what it's like to be afraid of crime and of police brutality.

mayoral candidate Maya Wiley

Wiley is still advocating for a $1 billion cut to the NYPD's $6 billion budget, with the savings going to social programs and other crime prevention initiatives. (Wiley's campaign did not specify whether her cuts would be in addition to the $420 million in existing cuts to the NYPD budget approved before the fiscal year began.)

Wiley would expand the city's summer job programs to provide 5,000 jobs to at-risk youth, among other things, and she calls the idea of a zero-sum competition between public safety and police accountability a "false choice."

“I have been Black my entire life,” Wiley, who would be the city’s first Black female mayor, said during the May 13 mayoral debate, “and that means I know two things: I know what it’s like to fear crime, and I know what it’s like to fear police violence.”

Of course, Wiley, who is married to media investor Harlan Mandel, has some extra security in her upscale Prospect Park South neighborhood.

Wiley told the New York Daily News that the private security car is "ridiculous," but she allows her family to contribute as a marital compromise after her husband, Mandel, was brutally mugged while walking in the neighborhood in 2001.

Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive who captured the activist left's attention before her campaign imploded this week amid allegations of staff union busting, comes the closest to capturing the radical spirit of the protesters demanding that the city "defund the police" in the summer of 2020.

Morales, who would be the city's first Black woman and Latina mayor, wants to cut the NYPD budget in half, remove cops from schools and traffic enforcement, and use the $3 billion in savings to address homelessness and poverty.

“It is time for us to address and focus on the systems, not the symptoms,” she said during the mayoral debate on May 13.

Despite the clear differences in public safety positions between the progressive and moderate Democratic candidates, the ranked-choice voting system used in NYC mayoral elections for the first time this cycle has complicated the electoral calculus for candidates from all ideological perspectives.

Even the front-runners are wary of alienating the supporters of other candidates, in case a few of those voters are willing to list them as a second, third, fourth, or fifth choice.

The votes are counted in five rounds, with the worst-performing candidate eliminated in each round, and that candidate's voters redistributed to the next-ranked choice of those voters. The winning candidate is the first person to receive a majority of votes after this multi-round elimination system.

Many people are only interested in prevention, but in order to prevent problems, you must first address the immediate threat and danger.

Eric Adams, candidate for mayor

Sean Dugar, the education campaign program director for Rank the Vote, an organization that encourages cities to adopt ranked-choice voting, argued that the system has already reduced some of the negativity in the mayoral race, arguing that independent groups supporting candidates are more likely to go negative than the candidates themselves.

“We are definitely seeing a shift in the overall tone of elections,” he said.

That may explain why Adams has toned down some of his harsher rhetoric against left-wing activists in recent weeks. In late April, Adams disparaged the movement to “defund” the NYPD, claiming that it was led by “young, affluent white people.”

However, when Morales pressed Adams on the remarks during a May 13 debate, claiming that she had worked with many Black supporters of “defund,” Adams hedged.

“I was speaking of the ‘disband’ movement, not the ‘defund’ movement... the movement to disband police departments across the country,” Adams explained, citing ongoing far-left riots and vandalism in Portland, Oregon, as an example.

In an earlier interview, Adams told Stardia that, in the long run, he supports progressive efforts to prevent crime through peaceful intervention and economic empowerment, but that, in the short term, New Yorkers need more cops in hot spots and faster 911 response times to stop the violence.

“We need intervention and prevention,” he said, noting that “many people only want prevention, but while you prevent issues, you must deal with the immediate threat and danger.”

The debate between New York's Democratic candidates reflects broader philosophical disagreements about public safety in advocacy and academia.

Candidates such as Morales tend to focus solely on how economic deprivation and disinvestment may be driving young people in low-income neighborhoods to a criminal lifestyle.

When asked about the cause of the crime surge, which is sweeping cities across the country, other progressives point to the COVID-19 pandemic's social isolation, unemployment, and public-sector cutbacks.

“In 2019, we had historically low numbers of murders and gun violence,” Williams said, adding that the primary difference between 2019 and 2021 is a global pandemic, which many people prefer to ignore.

However, more centrist and conservative thinkers argue that in the absence of state-imposed consequences, humans are prone to acting out, and that violence thrives when those consequences deteriorate.

Despite their poverty, the vast majority of Bishop Seabrooks' neighbors were lawful citizens.

“The law is for the lawless,” Seabrooks said, adding that “these people must be punished.”

Then, among supporters of the notion that policing can and should deter people from committing crimes, there is disagreement about why that deterrent has deteriorated so dramatically in the last two years.

Based on conversations with numerous NYPD officers, including participants in focus groups, Peter Moskos, a sociologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, believes that many cops have decided that the personal risks of proactive policing are too great.

The issue of gun violence cannot be ignored by the left.

New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams

According to Moskos, it is the result of a combination of laws that expose police officers to greater legal liability for using excessive force, as well as a hostile media and cultural environment that contributes to a sense that cops' lives can be upended by a viral video, even when they are acting lawfully.

“Discretionary policing basically ended,” said Moskos, who worked as a cop in Baltimore for a year as part of his doctoral research. “Cops basically do a cost-benefit analysis: Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

Moskos cited 72% more NYPD officers retiring in 2020 than in 2019, reducing the force's ranks to their lowest level in years even as violent crime in the city skyrocketed.

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is skeptical of police claims that public hostility is preventing them from doing their jobs. Rosenfeld co-authored a May 2020 study that refuted the existence of a so-called Ferguson Effect, or the idea that social unrest and anti-police sentiment following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown prompted police to stall.

According to Rosenfeld's interpretation of the available research, the deterioration of community trust in police forces caused, at least in part, by police misconduct is far more likely to result in a breakdown of cooperation with law enforcement and street-level justice than the phenomenon of "de-policing."

To the extent that a triage solution is required, data show that “precision policing,” which involves concentrating a large number of patrol officers in a few high-crime areas, can effectively deter crime, according to Rosenfeld.

“It has to be done with as little violence as possible, with no unjustified police violence,” he said.

Regardless of their individual philosophies, the Democratic mayoral candidates' ability to persuade the public that they have the right principles, expertise, and experience to restore public safety could be critical to their ability to gain control of City Hall.

According to polls, crime is either the most important or the second-most important concern for New York City voters, after COVID-19.

Progressives argue that if left-leaning politicians have the courage to articulate their more holistic, nuanced approaches to crime, they will gain traction with voters.

“People on the left can’t ignore this gun violence issue,” Williams said, adding that “there has to be a better, stronger, more emphatic response.”

“Candidates can say, ‘I am the candidate for public safety, and here is what that means,’ and just break it down,” he added. “Last year, you can’t increase police officers while cutting all of the summer youth jobs and expect it to have no impact.”

Candidates should also discuss cooperating with other cities and states to combat illegal gun sales, according to Williams.

However, at Yang, Adams, and Stringer's recent campaign stops in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the voters who were most vocal about public safety advocated for traditional law-and-order solutions.

On May 8, Yang took part in a town hall meeting with voters at a church in Brooklyn Heights, and the first question he received was from a woman who wanted to know if he would increase the size and funding of the NYPD (she was in favor of the idea).

The first question from the audience is, "Will you put more cops on the streets?" Yang says he'd prefer to increase clearance rates with the current force, but he's open to it if he believes it's necessary to reduce violent crime. pic.twitter.com/t1JZODiQVA — Daniel Marans (@danielmarans) May 8, 2021

Yang stated that he is open to it, but that “my first move is to see what we can do with our existing 36,000 officers to try and address some of these problems, because I am convinced we can do more.”

Arnold Larkins, an Upper West Side Black retiree, greeted Stringer warmly when he saw him outside the Fairway on May 9. He told Stardia that he is backing Stringer because of his familiarity with the comptroller.

When asked about his top priority, Larkins stated that it was crime reduction.

“Every day I look at the paper, I turn on the news, and I see these shootings. Something is wrong with that, and it has to stop,” Larkins said, adding, “And then, if you want to reform the police department, you can do that.”

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