Crime looms large in the race to run the Big Apple

Crime looms large in the race to run the Big Apple
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography

New York City's mayoral election is a one of a kind, one that draws more than its share of identifying Democrats both as candidates and voters. Candidates want to run a city that has held what the nation would adjudge to be generally progressive social views.

In a city where a steady hand toward small business recovery, homelessness, public transit, education and housing availability ought to dominate the airwaves two weeks out from the end of voting, crime is the hot topic.

How the city assures public safety is more complicated and nuanced than slogans and sound bites allow. Crime may not be the real issue.

Arguments in commercials, debates and social media home in on crime along with coverage that tries to elevate local crime reports into national questions. Various politicians, parties and -isms are seeking to make this election a wider referendum, pitting "defund police" believers against Back the Blue supporters.

"Fear of crime is back as a political issue in New York City. For the first time in years it could be a prime factor in who voters pick as their next mayor," The Associated Press reported matter of factly.

The lead in this contest is difficult to assess because of the number of candidates and the first-time use of a multi-choice ballot. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams seems to be ahead. He is a former NYPD captain, who spouts rhetoric about more targeted policing without a lot of specifics.

Several other candidates teeter in agreement to "get guns off the streets," while still trying to adhere to anti-stop-and-frisk thinking.

Of all of them, Maya Wiley, a former legal adviser to current mayor Bill de Blasio and once head of the civilian oversight police board, is most aggressive about looking anew at how police funds are spent.

It has become a slow-rolling sound-bite debate—as if there are only two choices and as if crime is the most important issue facing the city.

Without assured public safety, the general debate goes, we will not see the city fully rebounding from the pandemic.

How the city assures public safety is more complicated and nuanced than slogans and sound bites allow. Crime may not be the real issue.

Crime or Mental Health?

Yes, there is more crime in New York today than a year ago. Of course, a year ago, everyone was locked in at home. Comparisons, particularly when measured by percentages, are skewed.

Year after year, the number of shootings is up. There were 687 injured and 181 homicides as compared with the same period in 2019 (which is described as a whopping 50% increase). By comparison with the 1990s, however, those figures are way down.

Many of the most common types of crime in the city, including robberies, burglaries and grand larcenies, remain near historic lows, AP and others acknowledge.

A few very public shootings, including errant bullets injuring a toddler in Times Square and the fear of random misdoings in the subway, have boosted the public perception of rising crime. A plurality of voters surveyed in a recent NY1/Ipsos poll chose "crime or violence" as the biggest problem facing New York, with racial injustice and police reform also in the top 10.

Police and neighborhood groups are working together to respond to increased reports of guns being delivered into the city by vanloads.

At the same time, the increase of mass shootings nationwide keeps us from accepting that local situations may differ. Through the first five months of 2021, gunfire killed more than 8,100 people in the United States, about 54 lives lost per day, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research organization. That's 14 more deaths per day than the average toll during the same period of the previous six years.

Of course, if we really accept that premise, it begs the question of why we don't do something about limiting guns.

In My Neighborhood

This week, my wife and I dialed into our lightly attended Harlem neighborhood Zoom conversation with two police officers assigned to community outreach. It reflected some of what is going on in a wider sense.

The complaints aired were not so much about crime, or violent crime, as they were about the effects of drugs and homelessness on the streets – incidents of public urination, a guy stripping down, people congregating under the myriad scaffolded areas and a specific corner near three methadone clinics where people from across the entire city seem to congregrate. There were issues of discomfort and feelings of fear, if not actual crime.

Police expressed willingness to respond but did point out that there may be no actual crime involved. There have been nearly 30 arrests at that particular corner for drug selling in recent weeks. But there is an experimental program rolling out in which emergency medical treatment officers are paired with mental health specialists to get those with emotional problems into treatment centers.

Reports of "crime" or bad acts generally have gotten worse with waning pandemic restrictions.

Indeed, the police note that their very presence prompts lingerers at the corner to move onto less-trafficked nearby streets – with further complaints from those residents.The targeted corner resulted from efforts a year ago to clean up a similar intersection a few blocks away.

On the city's Westside, there was a very public debate over the use of an underutilized hotel where the city had sent homeless men. The individuals did not stay inside all the time. Soon normally tolerant Westsiders were complaining mightily about ugly confrontations, thefts and public urination. The city moved the men involved.

Burden on Police

There are no NYPD-equivalent homelessness and mental illness counselors. None of the candidates for mayor is talking about adding thousands of trained personnel to deal with homeless and mental illness.

So the burden for dealing with the results is falling on police to respond or to add lighting or patrols. There is little talk about what to do to reduce the city's 8,900 scaffolds, which keep the homeless out of police view.

Instead, there is fear talk about crime and violence.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights leader and frequent speaker in the policing issues getting national attention, fully acknowledges that crime and homelessness are issues in the city. "It is not true that those of us that want police reform do not also at the same time want to deal with crime," he told reporters last week.

Candidate Wiley would cut the police budget by $1 billion annually "and invest those funds directly into the communities most impacted by gun violence." A Wiley campaign ad shows police driving into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters last year. She says in the ad that it's "time the NYPD sees us as people who deserve to breathe," a reference to the deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd.

Candidate Scott Stringer, who calls himself a liberal, says he would cut at least $1 billion over four years through measures such as transferring mental health response to non-police crisis teams and reducing police overtime. Kathryn Garcia skips talking about the police budget but says officers' minimum age should be increased from 21 to 25 and new recruits should be required to live in the city. Andrew Yang backs a police residency requirement as well as beefed-up oversight of the department but rejects calls to defund the police.

Adams, an NYPD officer for 22 years talks of having been a victim of police brutality as a teenager. He rejects all calls for budget changes and wants more recruitment of officers of color and less racial profiling.

It's a lively debate, but perhaps unresponsive to what is prompting it.

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