By the end of June, New York City had experienced 227 murders in 2020, 51 more than the same period last year and consistent with an upward national trend. Like most of the experts investigating the causes, Mayor Bill de Blasio doesn’t know why this is happening. But that hasn’t stopped him from using the murders to demagogue, blaming them on alleged leniencies in the criminal-legal system and other policies that he opposes. It’s the latest stop on his descent into ignominy.
As far back as March, the mayor was attributing the crime-rate spikes to changes in New York’s bail laws. Statewide reforms implemented in January had narrowed the range of bail-eligible offenses, requiring that people charged with certain misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies be released. The rationale was that bail punishes poverty. If paying money is the difference between months spent behind bars and awaiting case updates at home, the inevitable outcome is jails being packed with poor people while those with means walk free. Predictably, the police opposed these changes. “Criminal-justice reforms serve as a significant reason New York City has seen this uptick in crime,” the NYPD said in a statement. The department’s evidence for this claim was dubious; a causal relationship was never proven, and legal-advocacy groups accused officials of inflating the statistics for political reasons, citing a drop in the number of cases being arraigned. The police’s control over the release of crime stats — paired with similar trends affecting cities and states with markedly different bail laws — muddied the conclusions further. But de Blasio parroted their claims. “There’s a direct correlation to a change in the law, and we need to address it,” the mayor said. Both entities had a powerful ally in Governor Andrew Cuomo. The state’s next budget reflected their accord, re-expanding the list of charges for which people could be held on bail.
These were the early days of the pandemic’s tightening chokehold on the United States. Jails and prisons were becoming hot spots, as was New York City. A burgeoning crisis at Rikers Island was making it clear that, without releasing prisoners in large numbers, the jail complex risked becoming a death cage, where the impossibility of social distancing invited mass infection. De Blasio bragged about some belated releases — “the fewest detainees we’ve had in our jails since 1949,” he tweeted. But as crime rates persisted, he started to blame the courts, claiming they weren’t locking up enough people or doing it fast enough. His latest scapegoat is the alleged deceleration of cases being processed. “[It] affects the ability to ensure that someone who should not be on the street, isn’t,” he told the New York Times this week. But the city’s own analysts tell a different story. A recent inquiry by officials found that the number of unresolved gun cases in July was roughly the same as in December, if not lower. Gun and murder arraignments from April to June were comparable to those between October and December 2019. Prosecutors in multiple boroughs insisted the pandemic hadn’t slowed things down but simply moved them online. “We’re open,” Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance told the Times.
This disconnect is common. The notion that prosecutorial relief begets chaos is widely accepted as gospel, but as the mayor’s unsupported allegations show, its broad acceptance belies its lack of underlying evidence. The unusual circumstances around the recent rise in murders are a prime example of how calls for harsher punishment are more reflexive than rigorous. A global pandemic, a maimed economy, mass unemployment, a national uprising against police violence — all make it especially hard to pinpoint the elements causing this upward trend, let alone isolate them. Experts openly admit this: “We don’t know nearly enough to know what’s going on at the given moment,” Jennifer Doleac, director of the Justice Tech Lab, told Vox’s German Lopez. “The current moment is so unusual for so many different reasons that … it’s really hard to speculate about broad phenomena that are driving these trends when we’re not even sure if there’s a trend yet.” It wouldn’t be the first time. There’s still no consensus around what caused the decades-long decline in U.S. crime rates that started in the 1990s. Confounding matters further is that most other violent-crime rates have gone down in recent months, though they usually move in the same direction as homicide trends, Lopez writes. Officials blaming leniency — like de Blasio and NYPD commissioner Dermot Shea — are performing a degree of certainty they do not possess.
This kind of demagoguery is also the standard. Decades of political campaigns and advertising by criminal-justice officials and others — both aspiring and incumbent — have so codified the idea that crime is best addressed by throwing the book at lawbreakers that it’s rarely questioned. It has launched and sustained many a career; historically, few political contenders lose elections by promising vicious treatment of alleged criminals. (Though there are signs that this sentiment is shifting.) There was a time when de Blasio seemed a poor fit for this type of politics. He ran for mayor as a reformer, harnessing backlash against former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policies into a campaign targeting racial and income inequality. De Blasio’s actions rarely lived up to his rhetoric, but that didn’t stop the NYPD from treating him as if they did. He was scorned widely by police and shown open disrespect by their rank and file and union officials alike. They turned their backs on him at officers’ funerals. Union heads openly threatened him. “Mayor De Blasio, the members of the NYPD are declaring war on you!” read the Sergeants Benevolent Association Twitter account in February, after the mayor expressed condolences when several officers were shot in one weekend. “We do not respect you, DO NOT visit us in hospitals.” Despite this antipathy, the mayor has continued to actively court their goodwill. When protests erupted this spring after the killing of George Floyd, NYPD officers rioted on nonviolent demonstrators. At least one drove their vehicle into a crowd. “I do believe the NYPD has acted appropriately,” the mayor said in response to this behavior. When his constituents revolted and he struck a more critical tone toward police, the SBA responded by doxing his daughter.
This back-and-forth has characterized the mayor’s rocky relationship with city law enforcement — vacillating wildly between rhetorical condemnation and sanction of their indefensible conduct, all while officers and union officials show him the utmost contempt. It’s especially incongruous given the bloated policing budgets and expanded gang databases that have marked his tenure and granted police broader surveillance powers and discretion to criminalize noncriminal behavior. All evidence indicates he is far from the law-enforcement antagonist that he performed early on or that the NYPD seems to think he is. The result is a queasy combination of reformist rhetoric — and sporadic entreaties — with “tough on crime” posturing. The mayor is now stoking fears of rising crime due to a laxness in the courts that does not exist, and he has attached causal blame for crime to more equitable bail laws with no proof. The stakes of throwing the weight of the most powerful office in America’s biggest city behind a harsher criminal-justice system are not a matter of conjecture. They are evidenced in the decades of devastation this approach has wrought for everyday New Yorkers. Today’s experts have readily acknowledged that the current trends defy easy explanations or answers. De Blasio’s refusal to do the same will spell disaster for the same vulnerable people he has claimed to champion.