‘Stop the Hysteria’
Crime Is Down—So Why Are New Yorkers So Afraid?
The weekend’s burst of gun violence might have looked normal in the ‘bad old days.’ But though crime overall is down 3.57 percent over 2014, New Yorkers are more frightened than ever.
Three people were shot in the head, another in the chest, another in the abdomen. An errant bullet grazed a 7-year-old girl’s ankle. Between Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, New York City saw seven deaths and four additional injuries from gun violence.
The New York of the “bad old days” might not have blinked at a weekend with just seven killings. The New York of 1990, with its 2,245 murders, might have accepted seven deaths as an improvement. But the New York of 2015, now some 20 years past its days of rampant crime, lives in near constant anxiety of their return—and a string of shootings might be the apocalyptic sign some New Yorkers are fearing.
New York City’s crime rates are down overall. The city saw 4,513 fewer major felony offenses in 2014 than in 2013, and 2015 is on track for even fewer incidents. But New Yorkers feel measurably less safe. In an August poll by Quinnipiac University, 46 percent of New Yorkers described crime as a “serious problem” for their city. The figure, up 10 percent since May, was the highest ever recorded since Quinnipiac added the question to its poll in 1999.
Crime is low, but perception of crime is at an all-time high, conflicting narratives that have proved no end of trouble for New York City administrators.
“I would say look at the facts and stop the hysteria,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters in August. “At this moment, crime is down almost 6 percent compared to last year, which was a record year.”
But as de Blasio is learning, public perception is difficult to battle with statistics. The Quinnipiac poll also indicated that just 40 percent of New Yorkers approve of de Blasio’s crime management and that only 36 percent approve of his dealings with the police department.
A more nuanced look at city crime data might reveal some of the roots of de Blasio’s image problem. Overall crime is down 3.57 percent from 2014, as de Blasio often claims, but the city’s most visible, violent crimes are up. The most significant area of improvement was in burglaries, which decreased 11 percent in 2015. Grand larceny, grand larceny auto, and assault also slowed, bringing down the overall crime average.
Rapes, murders, and robberies all increased slightly, however. These violent, personal crimes grab more headlines than nonviolent property thefts, and de Blasio’s insistence that the violent crimes are largely gang-related isn’t winning him much credibility.
“I think it’s clear that what we have primarily here is a gang and crew problem,” de Blasio told The Wall Street Journal in May, adding that it was “equally troubling when, you know, individual gang members shoot other gang members, but it’s a different reality.”
Rather than placating New Yorkers, de Blasio’s comments have been criticized as an excuse for the increased gun violence or a dismissal of violence in certain minority neighborhoods. And the mayor’s arguments (valid or not) about the city’s perceived crime spike (imagined or not) are being treated as a weak point by political rivals.
At a press conference Monday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, often regarded as de Blasio’s political foil and a potential re-election opponent, lashed out at the mayor’s statistical approach to crime.
“As we mourn the losses, the debate’s going to be ‘which week was safer?’ ‘What month did the statistics go down?’ When you’re saying, ‘We had the biggest, safest summer in history,’ well, when you go out and talk to the parents and the grandparents, they don’t want to hear that,” Stringer said. “If you’re the mother and a grandmother of a lost child, you don’t want to hear about statistics anymore. We’ve got to elevate this discussion.”