New York City has had a brutal summer when it comes to crime, only a few years after sharp improvements that had many, including this magazine, talking about a demographic shift that could take the murder rate nearly to zero.
The spike in shootings, highlighted by a high-profile shoot-out in Harlem involving both cops and civilians over the weekend, can in large part be chalked up to the bad economy. It’s not robberies to pay the rent, or murders for grocery money, but rather the persistent effects of a high unemployment rate twinned with diminishing social services and a smaller police force.
"There are no jobs," said Vernon Williams, an anti-violence activist and Harlem street pastor who spends much of his time talking to gang members. "There are no programs to educate people. Heck, even the drug trade is suffering. When the drug dealers are having a problem and the nine-to-fivers are having a problem, that says the economy is real bad.”
Still, the police department maintains that crime and the economy are essentially unrelated. “I can tell you generally, the problem has been essentially the same: young men with guns,” said police spokesman Paul Browne. “When that ebbs and flows, we haven’t seen a connection with the economy.”
Sunday's shooting in Harlem — with one man killed and another severely injured in a police gun battle — has gripped the city. But Harlem shootings had already become far more routine. In the northern part of Manhattan, shooting incidents through August 1 are up 59 percent from this time last year, with the bulk of that increase in the five police precincts that comprise Central and East Harlem.
It’s not traditionally organized gangs that are involved in the violence, but what the police department calls crews and others call youth gangs. Often the members are younger and the violent beefs are arguments that would have been resolved with fists 50 years ago.
“Gangs flourish when the legitimate economy doesn’t offer opportunities for those at the lower end of the social-class ladder," said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University. "Misery loves company, and [New York] is not the only city that is experiencing a spike in youth-gang violence.”
Citywide, the number of victims from shootings is already above 1,000, up 5 percent from this time last year, but few parts of the city have seen the increases that match Harlem, where several precincts have had an increase in shootings of more than 100 percent. Even more alarming, there are more shootings in East and Central Harlem now than there were in 2001, the year when the police department hit the peak employment level of about 41,000 officers.
Commissioner Browne maintains that overall crime is down, and indeed, grand larceny has fallen by 6 percent. But the grand-larceny numbers skew the broader crime stats: Car theft, burglary, assault, robbery, rapes, and murders are all up from last year, with rapes and murders up by double digits.
For Councilman Peter Vallone, who chairs the Public Safety Committee for the New York City Council, the current crime stats are a red flag.
“The economy definitely has an affect,” he said. “We need to increase the force. In the local precincts you won’t see the beat cop or the bicycle cop. You barely see anyone patrolling. I think it’s because of the attitude that exists right now that the war on crime is over and we can be lax again.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been faced with tough budget choices this year and the police department was narrowly spared further attrition that would have continued to reduce the ranks. “The number of police has gone down, no doubt about it, at the same time, so has crime,” said Jason Post, a spokesman for Bloomberg. “The mayor said, during the budget process, you can’t wring more efficiencies out of your staff. So we hired 1,200 more cops in July.”
The new members of the police force will maintain current numbers of police at around 35,000 but won't begin the climb back towards the 41,000 officers on the force in 2001.
Fox noted that numerous cities have cut back on anti-crime measures such as police on the streets and anti-gang units, only to have crime bounce back.
“You’re never going to solve the crime problem, you control it,” he said. “You don’t solve the gang problem, you control it. And when you stop paying attention, the problems rebound.”