Last month, NYPD officers Wilbert Mora and Jason Rivera were fatally shot while responding to a domestic disturbance in the 32nd Precinct, a square-mile stretch of northern Harlem. High-profile killings tend to rouse politicians, and this tragedy was no different. Soon after the murders, President Biden visited New York to discuss gun violence with Mayor Eric Adams. For many Democrats, this was an opportunity to reject “Defund the Police” and publicly confirm their commitment to combating crime. For his part, Mayor Adams, who made public safety a central focus of his campaign, has promised a return to some of the city’s tougher and more controversial approaches to crime control.
The battle of “our city against the killers” is long overdue. Violence has been consistent and frustratingly commonplace in the 32nd Precinct for decades–a reminder that the benefits of “the Great Crime Decline” have been unevenly distributed. Indeed, the 32nd Precinct is representative of similar neighborhoods all over the country that have never enjoyed the safety most Americans take for granted, even as the national violent crime rate dropped by more than 50 percent since its peak in the early 1990s. So far, the city’s response, driven by emotion and politics, has framed violent crime as a recent problem. But ignoring neighborhoods until expediency demands a response and offering incomplete solutions is not a recipe for lasting peace.
A comprehensive strategy includes enforcement and meaningful investment. Enforcement should minimize indiscriminate street stops and focus resources on the worst and most violent actors. At the same time, the city should continue to invest in strengthening neighborhoods while avoiding the pitfalls of previous efforts. Perhaps most importantly, New York should pay close attention to its past in crafting policy for the future.
Ignored and left behind
Officers of the 32nd Precinct have watched over the neighborhood since long before the Great Migration made it a center of art and intellectualism. Yet even at its cultural zenith, Harlem was often, as novelist Chester Himes put it, “A city of the meek and the violent.” When many people describe violence in New York City – or America for that matter – they talk about ebbs and surges, but in the 32nd Precinct, the tide has never really gone out.
Like the 32nd Precinct, many New York neighborhoods that continue to suffer from high rates of violence have long seemed inherently violent to city officials, places to either crack down on or ignore. By the 1950s, New York City had all but given up on Harlem. Two decades of rising crime and white flight punctuated by riots convinced city officials that policing the 32nd Precinct was hopelessly dangerous. The NYPD signaled its indifference by sending in newly hired Black officers, then widely considered expendable. Though the murder rate in the 32nd was consistently higher than the city average, police interest in curbing the violence seemed minimal. The eminent police executive and theorist Joseph D. McNamara, who cut his teeth walking a beat near Lenox Avenue in 1957, recalled a supervisor telling him, “This is Harlem, young man. Unless a cop is killed … homicide dicks could care less about this Precinct.”
The city’s attitude toward Harlem didn’t budge much over the next 25 years, as suburbanization, purposeful deprivation often rooted in racial animus, economic blight, and disease transformed the community into a “deurbanized area with a hyper-concentration of poor people with serious health problems,” with a lower life expectancy than that of Bangladesh. The crack epidemic hit north Harlem particularly hard: The neighborhood encompassed five of the top 10 zip codes in the country by substance abuse-related hospital admissions. Meanwhile, growing frustration with crime led a “silent majority” of residents and community leaders to embrace harsh drug laws and aggressive policing.
Eventually, the violence spilled over into other communities, and the public took note. In the 1980s, lucrative drug markets spread crime across New York, subjecting once-safe residential neighborhoods like Kensington in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in Queens to tastes of the same violence that had long plagued northern Harlem. The 32nd Precinct was the deadliest in the city in 1979; by 1990, its homicide rate barely cracked the top 10. Much like today, the rising tide of assaults and murders across the city made observers think violence was a new and unexpected horror. In the 32nd Precinct, it wasn’t.
In a dramatic shift in tone and tactics, city leadership doubled down on street enforcement. NYPD increased its workforce by about 9,000 uniformed officers during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, instituted the statistical management system COMPSTAT and focused resources on guns and open-air drug markets. Policies such as stop-question-frisk and Tactical Narcotics Teams were particularly salient in north Harlem. The 32nd was among the precincts with the largest increases in misdemeanor arrests and the highest drug arrest rates throughout the 1990s. Meanwhile, crime rates across the nation had begun to descend.
Some combination of law enforcement investment and changes in the character of the city and nation appears to have contributed to a significant and lasting crime decline, but police tactics, including aggressive street stops and “zero tolerance” policing, probably had only a moderate impact on violent crimes. Still, murders fell by two-thirds between 1991 and 2001, and about 65 percent of the lives saved were people of color, sparing vulnerable neighborhoods thousands of tragedies.
Street enforcement was so ingrained that police now thought of it as a permanent necessity rather than a temporary exigency. Intensive stops continued into the next decade and beyond, despite their doubtful contribution to the crime decline. The 32nd reported the most stop-question-frisks among NYPD precincts between 2006 and 2016. By 2018, the 32nd also had the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the city. This time, however, the returns were less impressive. The Precinct posted a lackluster reduction in homicides after 2000, scoring worse than all but ten other commands. From 2011 until the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset, the citywide murder rate fell by 30 percent. Still, killings in the 32nd haven’t changed much in 20 years.
From 2011-2015, when violence fell considerably citywide, the drop in the 32nd’s homicide rates was among the smallest. From 2015-2020, the 32nd reported the second-largest increase in murders among Manhattan precincts and the sixth-largest citywide. While the rest of the city benefited from such an unrelenting drop in crime that even conservative commentators admitted that heavy street enforcement was no longer necessary, violence simmered in the many places where it had never gone away.
Murders doubled in the Precinct in the three years leading up to the pandemic, but while advocates and city leaders leveraged 20 years of relative safety to call for big reforms to the justice system, no one seemed to be watching the trend in the 32nd. When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in 2020, murders in the 32nd shot up by 78 percent. Two years on, the recent outrage and renewed attention to violence in the wake of the deaths of Officers Mora and Rivera in Harlem and heinous shooting injuries to three other officers and an 11-month-old baby earlier in January are justifiable and welcome. But their timing suggests many in the city care only about sensational violence and still think of the lower-profile, day-to-day killings that drive crime statistics in places like the 32nd, now as they did in 1957. That is, unless a cop or some other worthy innocent gets shot, they “could care less.”
The narrative that we are amid a sudden spike in violent crime rests on the incorrect premise that there was once a safe idyll from which unforeseeable forces have recently wrenched cities. This narrative ignores the undercurrent of quotidian violence that lurked just below the headlines, violence that somehow seemed safe to ignore. The truth is, even before the pandemic, in all types of precincts, New York’s homicide rate was back where it was in 2011, just before the second great crime decline. The same neighborhoods that led the city in reducing murders from 2011 to 2015 saw the gains of those years obliterated during the balance of the decade. The homicide curve looks low and flat if you squint at it from far enough away to see 40 years of statistics. But such a perspective offers no comfort to the families of people who continue to die needlessly in places like the 32nd Precinct.
Toward lasting peace
The ability to protect residents from violent victimization is arguably the most basic measure of state success. By that metric, New York has failed the 32nd Precinct. The city overcame a massive epidemic of violence that stretched between the 1960s and the 1990s, but since then it hasn’t progressed in places where violence had already been a feature of daily life. The inability of the city to protect residents of the 32nd Precinct from sustained violence over a long period could be considered an example of what Rutgers University political scientist Lisa Miller has called “racialized state failure.”
Violent crime, including murder, is lower than it was at its peak in the early 1990s, even in the 32nd. But it’s still intolerably high, and sustainably lowering the murder rate should be a top priority of the Adams administration. Critically, that goal should not be achieved by clustering violence into certain neighborhoods. Instead, the city must commit to the idea that no neighborhood is naturally or inevitably dangerous. Murder should be considered a key measure of racial and economic equity, and even overall reductions in crime are unsatisfactory if entire communities are left behind.
To their credit, New York’s leaders have made violence reduction a central focus, and two plans have emerged as leading contenders in the effort to fight crime. Mayor Adams’s approach includes a throwback to some previously controversial measures, including a resurrection of “neighborhood safety teams” made up of plainclothes officers trained to seize weapons and intervene when violence arises. Additionally, Mayor Adams has called on the city’s five prosecutors to commit to harsher prosecution of young people caught with a gun. Following the same logic, he has asked legislators to amend the state’s “Raise the Age” law to allow prosecutors to file adult charges against juveniles caught carrying or using guns, which would subject them to lengthy mandatory minimum sentences. He has asked that judges at bail hearings be allowed to consider the “potential dangerousness” defendants pose to public safety, an idea long resisted by progressives as subjective and unfair. Finally, he has asked the federal government to help interdict illegal guns.
The second plan, outlined by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, takes an approach based less on enforcement and more on attacking root causes of violence. Williams wants residency requirements to make sure the police are representative of the neighborhoods they patrol. He also wants investments in non-police responses to violence, such as hospital-based interventions, in which medical staff, not cops, interview shooting victims. And he wants to couple long-term investment in mental health services with improvements to public spaces. Like Adams, he’s asking the state and federal governments to step up to help NYC track guns and stop them from entering the city.
There’s some merit to both proposals. Mayor Adams’s tactical approach can help stanch the bleeding in the short-term, a prerequisite for long-term healing. Mr. Williams’s root causes approach is also worthwhile if any respite is to last. The rebound in murders in places like the 32nd Precinct proves that enforcement alone will not deliver meaningful and lasting peace in the streets. However, both plans also fall short of the mark.
For example, while prosecuting young people for gun possession more harshly might deliver some short-term benefits, over the long term it could backfire if communities begin to perceive the effort as being more about locking people up than keeping them safe. NYC juries have long been reluctant to convict young people charged with carrying guns, reflecting the difficulty of proving such charges and general distrust between police and the people they serve. And while Mayor Adams is undoubtedly right that we need to get guns off the street before they are used, vacuuming young men in poor neighborhoods into the criminal justice system is an unnecessary collateral cost. What’s more, it is too often borne by the very people such laws are intended to protect.
Instead of relying only on harsh mandatory sentences to deter gun offenders (a dubious proposition), a better response would include non-carceral interventions that have shown promise. For example, the success of Brooklyn’s Project Redirect program, which diverts young adults accused of gun possession into intensive services and supervision, shows that some alternatives to incarceration can protect public safety without incurring attendant social costs.
Even within the restricted realm of enforcement, instead of an indiscriminate full-court press against gun-carrying that yields few benefits, city leaders should consider a more focused approach that has caused significant reductions in violence by targeting the most dangerous offenders. It’s also important to realize that the more lenient bail and prosecution policies introduced in the past few years, which overwhelmingly affected people charged with nonviolent and misdemeanor crimes rather than violent criminals, did not cause the crime spike, and in fact went into effect after violence was already rising in NYC’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Reversing these policies won’t reverse the trend in violence.
On the other hand, while there is evidence that crime rates respond to community investments like summer jobs for at-risk youth, cognitive behavioral therapy and social services more generally, such programs are difficult to successfully scale up and often benefit from operator effects, such as charismatic leadership, that are hard to replicate. Other reforms, such as residency requirements, have little basis in evidence.
Further, the public was lukewarm about moving money from police budgets to social service providers even at the height of the “Defund the Police” movement’s popularity. The community-based organizations that receive the bulk of city, state, and federal social investments in New York have long been tied to client politics that fosters a muddle of influence-trading. This perversely keeps money out of the hands of the people it is meant to help and waters down the benefits accrued. Rather than indiscriminately pumping more money into these organizations, the state and city should construct safeguards to ensure that effectiveness rather than expediency prevails.
Finally, both plans punt too much responsibility to outside regulators who are in no position to help. Relying on state and federal governments to stop the flow of illegal guns into the city is inadequate. Most of the guns used by the shooters driving up the murder rate have circulated in the illicit market for years. Many are shared and kept in public places, and they are often stolen or untraceable. Removing these guns through mass arrests is only one of many strategies. Gun surrender and buy-back programs have had mixed results. Consent-to-search programs, in which parents allow police to search their property for guns in exchange for immunity for their children, might be a more direct option. Still better, police might adopt the practice of regularly asking domestic violence complainants, like the mother of Officers Mora and Rivera’s killer, if they can search the premises for illegal weapons.
All neighborhoods matter
Enforcement and social services are not collectively exhaustive options. Absent from both crime control strategies is one plausible explanation for why crime continued to decline in places where mass street tactics were rolled back but not in places where they weren’t: The neighborhoods that became safe received lasting economic investments. In contrast, places like the 32nd received only piecemeal relief.
Two changes in New York during the 1980s and early 1990s fundamentally improved public safety: The city initiated a long-term development plan that put billions of public and private money into rebuilding housing stock and refurbishing commercial districts. Federal and state aid for social services increased by almost 50 percent. Of the two, the long-term development plan has delivered more lasting benefits. Times Square, a recipient of massive public-private investments, had some of the highest crime rates in the city between the 1960s and 1980s and is now one of New York’s safest places. Meanwhile, 100 blocks uptown, northern Harlem relied on government outlays that became scarce as the decade wore on. Federal and state social spending shriveled by 35 percent between 1995 and 2014, and even as crime rose after 2015, state grants for services fell by more than 20 percent. Places like Times Square were rebuilt; northern Harlem was patched over.
Neighborhoods where residents and businesses have informal social controls that are inadequate to deter crime must rely on enforcement. But for the same reason, law enforcement officials have more difficulty making arrests and solving crimes in such neighborhoods, which leads to diminishing gains from enforcement. Unsurprisingly, marginal increases in public and private investment in neighborhoods with low levels of social control have higher returns for public safety than similar investments in more affluent neighborhoods.
Policymakers can help these neighborhoods with solutions that sidestep the usual pitfalls of direct social spending, such as client politics and fickle budgets. The 32nd Precinct may never be Times Square (something that should cheer residents), but it can be just as safe with a similar strategy applied on a different scale. Neighborhood Improvement Districts, for instance, are nonprofit organizations to which property owners agree to contribute in exchange for supplemental public services over which they have some degree of control, an arrangement not unlike the Times Square Alliance. Such districts are associated with substantial reductions in serious crimes and significantly fewer arrests over time. Neighborhood Matching Funds, which match community investments of cash or volunteer hours with city grants and allow local control, have also shown promising results.
Direct investments in infrastructure are even more promising. For example, evidence suggests improved street lighting reduces crime. One estimate found that introducing temporary lighting towers reduced nighttime index crimes by 35 percent and overall index crimes by 4 percent – an effect akin to a 10 percent increase in police manpower. Improvements in street lighting may also contribute to residents’ healthier, more active lifestyles and a general feeling of well-being and neighborhood efficacy. These effects are likely generalizable to geographically and culturally diverse neighborhoods. Improving vacant lots is also correlated with reduced crime. One study found treating vacant lots in neighborhoods below the poverty line resulted in significant reductions in gun violence, burglary, nuisances, and other crimes. The general finding that improving vacant and blighted land can reduce crime is supported by substantial research.
New York’s recent history of mostly low crime rates and generally safe streets lulled the city into complacency about the crime that remained. Scholars have spent the better part of two decades puzzling over why violence went away in most neighborhoods, using the crime decline as proof for their theories of achieving public safety but rarely reaching consensus. Meanwhile, with some notable exceptions, they have ignored shootings and killings in places like the 32nd Precinct because such events are inconvenient to the narrative of “the city that became safe.”
Mayor Adams and his state and federal partners need to look no further than the 32nd Precinct to understand what Officers Mora and Rivera had learned growing up in nearby neighborhoods: Revenge is no substitute for safety, and enforcement alone is an incomplete answer. But neither will feckless social spending and empty gestures make a difference.
Eventually, violent crime will settle back to levels people on the Upper East Side can stomach. But until policymakers make a long-run commitment to a comprehensive, evidence-based strategy to tackle violence where it remains all too common, people who live in the 32nd Precinct will continue to die, even if most of them never make the front page.
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