Friday, November 23, 2007

First, the Good News

One aspect of life in New York City is returning to the past. Fifty years in the past. It's a shadow of its former self. Murder. It's down, way down. So down it's almost out. That's the good news. New Yorkers are tolerating each other and relating to each other with such warm fuzziness, it's hard to find serious trouble. Well. Not quite. But...

To see how downright friendly the city had become this year, I hopped the subway over to Bushwick and East New York on Halloween. I wore my costume. I went dressed as a white guy. At the Broadway Junction stop on the J train -- that's East New York, in police terms, the 75th precinct, and still the leading site for homicide -- I hopped off and started my stroll.

Around the bend and up to Bushwick Avenue, eventually cutting over to Knickerbocker Avenue.
The stores were open, but the sidewalks were clogged with kids trick-or-treating. Every store was in on the fun, giving out candy or a little of their product it the store happened to be a bakery or bodega. From Bushwick Avenue to Knickerbocker Avenue all the way into Williamsburg, the kids were popping into the stores and the store operators were handing out the goods, at least they passed out goods until the supplies were gone.

All treats. No tricks. No mischief, no mayhem, no problems. Most of the kids were with a parent or two. Plenty of teenagers in costumes were out there seeking treats too. Kids in strollers, kids in wheelchairs, everybody was out collecting candy from the shops on the avenues. It felt like festival time. Everyone in the community seemed to be thronging the sidewalks, spirits high and comradely. Not a single event or moment clouded the evening. It was a smooth and pleasant night in Brooklyn. One of those serene periods when time seems to stop and life is a pleasant hum.

Why can't things be this way all the time? What is it in the human spirit that keeps East New York and Bushwick way up near the top of violent precincts?

As relieving and comforting as it is to sense the decline in danger that life in NY City has too often included, it remains disturbing to see that some groups are more prone to murder than others. In fact, with numbers as low as those reported so far in 2007, the contrast is as sharp as it could be. According to the NY Times article:

Killers and those killed are overwhelmingly male and most in both categories are between 18 and 40, according to the police analysis. In terms of race and ethnicity, whites make up 7 percent of victims and assailants, while 66 percent of the victims and 61 percent of the assailants are black and 26 percent of the victims and 31 percent of the assailants are Hispanic.

The disparity is huge. What explains it?

City Homicides Still Dropping, to Under 500


New York City is on track to have fewer than 500 homicides this year, by far the lowest number in a 12-month period since reliable Police Department statistics became available in 1963.

But within the city’s official crime statistics is a figure that may be even more striking: so far, with roughly half the killings analyzed, only 35 were found to be committed by strangers, a microscopic statistic in a city of more than 8.2 million.

If that trend holds up, fewer than 100 homicide victims in New York City this year will have been strangers to their assailants. The vast majority died in disputes with friends or acquaintances, with rival drug gang members or — to a far lesser degree — with romantic partners, spouses, parents and others.

The low number of killings by strangers belies the common imagery that New Yorkers are vulnerable to arbitrary attacks on the streets, or die in robberies that turn fatal.

In the eyes of some criminologists, the police will be hard pressed to drive the killing rate much lower, since most killings occur now within the four walls of an apartment or the confines of close relationships.

“What are you going to do, send cops to every house?” said Peter K. Manning, the Brooks professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

“We know that historically, homicide is the least suppressible crime by police action,” he added. “It is, generally speaking, a private crime, resulting from people who know one another and have relationships that end up in death struggles at home or in semipublic places.”

Police officials did not dispute the validity of that assessment. The homicide figure continues a remarkable slide since 1990, when New York recorded its greatest number of killings in a single year, 2,245, and when untold scores of the victims were killed in violence between strangers.

Homicides began falling in the early 1990s, when Raymond W. Kelly first served as police commissioner, and plummeted further under subsequent commissioners. Mr. Kelly returned to serve under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2002, the first year there were fewer than 600 homicides. There were 587 that year, down from 649 in the previous year.

Nearly two decades ago, the city’s crack-cocaine epidemic led to headlines about gang wars, semiautomatic gunfire in schoolyards and a police blotter that showed more than six homicides a day, on average.

This year, with 428 killings logged through Sunday — 412 actual killings plus 16 crime victims who have died this year from injuries sustained long ago — the average number of killings is a bit more than one a day.

The numbers on file from before 1963 are not considered reliable for comparison because until then, many homicides were not recorded until an arrest was made and the case was closed, but ever since, they have been recorded as they occurred. There were 390 homicides recorded in 1960, fewer than this year, but any comparison would be faulty.

The killings that have seized the headlines this year appear to have personal motives at their core: An assistant has been charged with killing her boss, Linda Stein, inside Ms. Stein’s Fifth Avenue penthouse after a vicious argument; a Queens orthodontist, Daniel Malakov, was gunned down, and a relative of his estranged wife, whom he was fighting in divorce and child custody proceedings, has been charged.

In contrast to the 35 cases this year in which officials have found that victim and assailant were strangers, there were 121 in the whole of last year, officials said. The motives in the remainder of the killings this year are still being analyzed.

The dropping homicide rate raises a question of whether other types of crime are on the rise. But police statistics, which are subject to an internal auditing system in use since the early 1990s, show dips in six of the seven major crime categories, according to the department’s latest reports.

As of Sunday, overall crime was down 6.47 percent, compared to the same period last year. In addition to the homicide rate, the number of rapes, robberies, burglaries, grand larcenies and car thefts are all on the decline.

Felony assaults have increased slightly, to 15,372 from 15,344, a 0.1 percent increase, according to the police statistics. Shootings, which the department has tracked for 14 years, as well as the number wounded in those shootings, are both down.

After years when crime fell across the nation, many cities in the country are now experiencing a surge in homicides, said Thomas A. Reppetto, a police historian who monitors the city crime numbers and helped write “NYPD: A City and Its Police.”

“You would expect New York to follow the national trend, but instead, murders continue to go down considerably,” Mr. Reppetto said.

“Not only has the N.Y.P.D. reduced murder, by nearly 80 percent, but it has changed the pattern of homicides,” he added. “In the early 1990s, many innocent citizens were killed by bullets from battling drug gangs. Today, thanks to the police drive against the gangs, that type of homicide is far less common.”

It is extremely common around the nation to find in killings involving acquaintances that those involved are not family members but criminals or drug gang members, said David M. Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

In the 412 killings this year, the number of people with previous arrests for narcotics was striking: 196 victims and 149 assailants. And 77 percent of the assailants had a previous arrest history, while 70 percent of the victims did, the statistics showed.

Killers and those killed are overwhelmingly male and most in both categories are between 18 and 40, according to the police analysis. In terms of race and ethnicity, whites make up 7 percent of victims and assailants, while 66 percent of the victims and 61 percent of the assailants are black and 26 percent of the victims and 31 percent of the assailants are Hispanic.

When told about the low homicide numbers, Dr. Manning uttered a single word: “Wow.”
Mr. Kennedy said, “What this shows is that the N.Y.P.D. — and whatever else is going on in New York — has managed to squeeze the problem of active offenders against active offenders down to a remarkably, historically low level.”


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