Posted on January 27, 2021

The Homicide Spike Is Real

Rafael A. Mangual, New York Times, January 19, 2021

New York City has finally closed the book on an abysmal year. It goes without saying that the biggest challenge for residents is still the Covid-19 pandemic, which has mercilessly pummeled the public and the economy. However, with vaccinations underway, we can all see the light at the end of that particular tunnel.

The sharp rise in homicides and shootings has been the city’s second-biggest challenge. But the way forward is less clear, and the prospects for a better 2021 are much dimmer.

Through Dec. 27, New York City’s 447 homicides and 1,518 shootings are respective year-to-date increases of 41 percent and 97.4 percent from 2019’s numbers. New Yorkers haven’t seen a year-over-year spike in homicides anywhere near this large since the early 1970s. {snip}


{snip} Black and Hispanic people have constituted at least 95 percent of the city’s shooting victims every year for more than a decade — one of the starkest and most persistent racial disparities in the criminal justice data. Data through October indicates that last year was no exception.


How to explain the sudden spike in shootings and homicides is and will continue to be a point of contention — particularly given the criminal justice reform movement’s momentum in New York City and the country at large. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Bronx native, posited in July that the spike was a function of unemployment brought about by the pandemic. Mayor Bill de Blasio, early last year, suggested the state’s recently enacted bail reform was at least partly to blame.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is not alone in drawing this line of causation. But while there is a connection between certain socioeconomic indicators and property crime, the same cannot be said for violent crimes like shootings and homicides. Available data on poverty, unemployment and the sort of violence occupying the minds of New Yorkers over the past year undermines the supposition that there is a strong causal relationship among these three phenomena. Barry Latzer, a criminologist and a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, calls this “the crime/adversity mismatch,” writing in his book “The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America” that across American history, “no consistent relationship between the extent of a group’s socioeconomic disadvantage and its level of violence is evident.”

Consider the fact that between 2006 and 2009 (which captures the financial crisis that caused a deep recession in New York City), the unemployment rate for working-age Black men — who account for a disproportionately large share of the city’s homicide and shooting victims and perpetrators — nearly doubled, jumping to 17.9 percent from 9 percent. Yet the number of homicides fell to 471 in ’09 from 596 in ’06, and felony assaults declined to 16,773 from 17,309.

In 2016 — the year before New York City posted a modern-era record-low 292 homicides — the citywide poverty rate was 19.5 percent, almost a full point higher than it was in 1989, the year before the city posted a record-high 2,262 homicides. And in 2016, Black New Yorkers experienced poverty at a lower rate (19.2 percent) than their Hispanic (23.9 percent) and Asian (24.1 percent) counterparts, who accounted for much smaller shares of the city’s gun violence.

Mr. de Blasio may have been closer to the mark: It is plausible that the numerous legislative and administrative policy levers pulled at various points over the past few years have laid the groundwork for the recent surge in violence. A few examples:

In Brooklyn, which has borne the brunt of the city’s rise in shootings, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has introduced policies that functionally decriminalize a host of offenses. His office also has prioritized expanding diversion programs — a benefit extended to young gun offenders. And it has adopted a policy of supporting parole bids. Perhaps coincidentally, The New York Post reported in May that Police Department data showed there had been an uptick in shootings involving parolees.

New York State put expansive bail and discovery reforms on the books last year, which followed a major 2017 reform raising the age of criminal responsibility. The 2017 law made it much harder to try 16- and 17-year-old defendants as adults. {snip}

Then there was the mayor’s 2014 decision to drop the city’s appeal in the litigation surrounding the Police Department’s “stop, question and frisk” practice — which was followed by a sharp decline in pedestrian stops. {snip}

All of these changes have either raised the transaction costs of policing and prosecution or increased the amount of time repeat offenders are spending on the street. And they have come in the midst of yearslong declines in the state’s jail and prison populations — declines the changes seem calculated to extend, if not accelerate.


The spike in shootings and homicides does not seem to have slowed the city’s push for decarceration and depolicing, putting the lie to the widely held belief that crime can be easily capitalized on to stunt reform efforts.