WATERTOWN — Like it has in many other high-population areas across the country, crime in New York City has reached disturbing levels.
Major crimes in the Big Apple rose 22% in 2022 over the previous year. According to a Jan. 5 article published by The New York Times, categories that saw the largest increases included robberies and burglaries. However, the city saw “a significant drop in shootings and murders,” The New York Times reported.
Other large metropolitan regions saw similar spikes in crime — and officials in some spots have paid a price. Voters in my hometown of Chicago last week gave Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot the boot after a single term in office. Violence in parts of Chicago is out of control, and many residents have had enough of the ineptitude of the city’s officials in addressing it.
Lightfoot displayed her utter lack of leadership by pointing fingers at everyone but herself for her loss. When asked by a reporter after the election if she had been treated unfairly, she said: “I’m a black woman in America. Of course.”
The reality is that Lightfoot had a dismal tenure in office. She was in way over her head, and voters weren’t about to repeat the mistake of electing her mayor in the first place.
Here in New York state, Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul took it on the chin last year in her campaign against U.S. Rep. Lee M. Zeldin due to the crime issue. While she really wasn’t in danger of losing the race, it was much closer than many had anticipated.
Former U.S. House Speaker Nancy P. Pelosi blamed Hochul and other Democrats for not taking crime seriously enough. Democrats lost their thin majority in the House, a development aided by the several congressional districts in New York that flipped Republican in last year’s election. Pelosi said the Democrats may have been able to hold onto the House had those in Empire State addressed the problem much earlier.
New York City Mayor Eric L. Adams has come up with a novel approach to reducing crime. I’m not sure it will work, but it got people talking.
“We are putting out a clear call to all of our shops: Do not allow people to enter the store without taking off their face mask,” Adams said Monday during an interview on WINS-AM/1010 in New York City. “Once they’re inside, they can continue to wear it if they so desire to do so.”
Many stores have security cameras installed to capture images that may help law enforcement authorities identify criminals. Getting a few good pictures or some video of a crook could lead investigators to the culprit.
But the novel coronavirus has made things much more difficult. With many people continuing to wear face coverings to avoid becoming infected, some thieves are able to blend in the crowd without standing out.
While donning masks, they walk into a store and begin taking items. The images taken by the cameras will likely be of no use to anyone.
The challenges to Adams’s suggestion were obvious.
“The guidance quickly caused a stir in New York City, where the terrible toll from the early COVID-19 pandemic prompted a mask mandate. At many stores, doors and windows remain plastered with reminders to wear face coverings,” an article published Tuesday by NPR reported. “And in a town famous for its no-nonsense culture, questions immediately popped up about the wisdom of putting yet another onus on store workers — and whether armed criminals would follow new rules about masks. Some people also wondered if forcing those with compromised immune systems to remove their masks indoors might itself break the law.”
It’s uncertain how businessowners and their employees will prevent people from removing their masks before entering a building. Many stores don’t have security measures allowing merchants to control customers’ access.
Some shops have security systems requiring employees to “buzz” patrons in so they can enter the front doors. But numerous businesses that are most likely to be victimized by theft — convenience stores, pharmacies and bodegas — do not have such measures.
Democratic prosecutors in some larger areas helped create the surge in crime. Alvin L. Bragg Jr. took over as Manhattan’s district attorney in 2021. Shortly after taking over in the winter of 2022, he issued a letter to staff members that stunned the broader law enforcement community.
“Bragg’s ‘Day One’ memorandum said the district attorney’s office would not prosecute fare beating, resisting arrest and other nonviolent crimes in an attempt to decriminalize poverty and mental illness and balance fairness and safety,” according to a story published Feb. 4, 2022, by ABC News. “It also said prosecutors should treat armed robbery in commercial settings as misdemeanor petit larceny if there is no genuine risk of physical harm and disallowed bail conditions for pre-trial cases except for ‘very serious cases.’ The policies, he wrote, ‘will make us safer.’ The memo prompted a scathing review from the city’s new police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, who feared Bragg’s policies ‘will invite violence against police officers and will have deleterious effects on our relationship with the communities we protect,’ she said the day after the memo was issued.”
Bragg backpedaled to some extent. He sent out another letter clarifying what his office would do in certain crimes.
“Violence against police officers will not be tolerated. We will prosecute any person who harms or attempts to harm a police officer,” he wrote. “A commercial robbery with a gun will be charged as a felony, whether or not the gun is operable, loaded or a realistic imitation. A commercial robbery at knifepoint, or by other weapon that creates a risk of physical harm, will be charged as a felony. … In retail thefts that do not involve a risk of physical harm, the office will continue to assess the charges based on all of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances presented.”
But critics believe the damage had already been done. He initially conveyed the message that some categories of crime won’t be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
In the spring of 2022, City Journal magazine summarized the disconnect between how some public officials are talking about crime and what people by and large are going through:
“New York City is mired in a frightening swamp of violent crime. Assurances from proponents of criminal justice reform that there’s nothing to worry about, as the crime rate is still well below early 1990s levels, ring hollow. These same advocates for social progress would not be consoled if they were told that maternal deaths and poverty rates were worse in the 1990s. That crime isn’t as bad as it was 30 years ago is no consolation. People do not experience life measured in decades but as it happens — and the sudden acceleration of the murder rate in 2020 was profoundly dislocating. Even if New York logged more murders in an earlier era, the city has never experienced a 40% rise in homicides over just one year. This sudden plunge into violence made people feel that the streets were chaotic and dangerous — and as criminologists attest, the impression that streets are unsafe is enough to deter many people from venturing out.”
Reducing crime is complicated; there are no shortcuts or easy answers. This isn’t something that’s going to be solved overnight or by one individual. Part of it will involve addressing problems stemming from mental health or substance abuse issues. Until we work on this, not much will change.
However, many illegal incidents occur because of opportunities made available by indecisive authorities. When criminals infer they may get away with their actions, they’ll take advantage of these situations.
And simplistic responses from public officials won’t help at all. Adams’s recommendation to stores about face masks shows that he’s out of ideas.
That’s unfortunate. What’s truly needed is a strong commitment from those in power to prosecute lawless behavior with every available resource. Once criminals get the message that authorities will push back hard, they’ll begin to think twice.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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