Gunplay Rises in New York, Reviving Issue for de Blasio

Al Baker and J. David Goodman, New York Times, June 1, 2015

Shootings in New York City have been rising for two straight years, the first time that has happened since the end of the 1990s, when the city was still in the early years of a remarkable downturn in crime.

Homicides by gunfire, seen as a key measure of preventable violence, are up steeply this year. Of the 135 killings through May, 98 involved a gun, up from 69 such killings at this point in 2013 and in 2014.

Taken together, the trends raise concern heading into the summer months, when street violence is often most pronounced. So far this year, there have been 439 shootings, 20 percent higher than the same period in 2013, which was a historically low year. But this year’s figure is still well under the more than 2,000 logged over the same period two decades ago.

For Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat whose efforts to improve police-community relations depend on a force often skeptical of him, increases in violence have reanimated an issue that has stalked him since his campaign for City Hall. The question remains: How to quell gunplay in an era when stop-and-frisk tactics–for years among the Police Department’s principal tools for curbing street violence–are employed far less frequently than before its excessive use came under widespread criticism.

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But at a news conference on Monday, James P. O’Neill, the New York Police Department’s highest-ranking chief, acknowledged the steep rise in gunplay and said it was what kept him and other chiefs up at night, even as overall crime was going down.

“We do not take this lightly,” said Chief O’Neill, who led the news conference while the commissioner, William J. Bratton, was on vacation in Italy. “This is our focus.”

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This year, officers have stepped back from some areas of policing, particularly with regard to marijuana possession and some other low-level offenses. They have logged hundreds of thousands fewer stops, summonses and arrests than in previous years. {snip}

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Officers on the street have said that those who might choose to carry a gun are now more emboldened to do so. Indeed, police officials on Monday suggested that it was a daily occurrence that routine street stops by officers–for offenses like drinking in public and double-parked cars–have turned up guns.

At the same time, the number of guns seized from the street has declined roughly 20 percent over the last five years. The police recorded 3,648 guns recovered during arrests in 2010. By 2014, the police recovered 2,942 guns.

So far this year, the number is flat, officials said on Monday.

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The mayor, too, has sought to play down fears in the city, attributing the problem to gangs and more informally organized crews of young men running roughshod in just a handful of the city’s 77 police precincts.

“It’s abundantly clear,” the mayor said last week, “what’s happening more and more is isolated to a relatively small set of gangs and crews.”

But in a signal of its concern, the Police Department next week will begin deploying 330 extra officers–the “All Out” program–to crime-plagued areas, a month earlier than it did last year when shootings spiked as the weather warmed. It is also increasing overtime on weekend nights, and extending the hours of its Operation Impact officers, who patrol troubled streets on foot.

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