Manhattan at the Crossroads

How comforting to be blessed with a short memory.  You can awaken each morning in the belief that the halcyon conditions that greet you as you go about your day have always existed, and that no effort or even thought need be expended to secure their continuance.  Consider the city of New York, whose citizens (or at least a majority of its voters) seem to live under the shared delusion that the low crime currently seen across the five boroughs is simply the way things are, have always been, and always will be.  How else to explain the election of Bill de Blasio?

In 1990, the first year of Mayor David Dinkins’s stewardship, New York City experienced its all-time record number of criminal homicides, a staggering 2,245.  When Dinkins left office on New Year’s Eve, 1993, the total for that year was a slightly less horrifying 1,960.

But in 2013, through the efforts of the mayors who succeeded Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, their respective police commissioners, and most importantly the men and women of the NYPD, the number was 335.  This may be small comfort if someone close to you happened to be one of the 335, but New Yorkers today have all but forgotten the experience of passing two crime scenes on their way to the Subway and perhaps another after reaching their final stop.  Through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, if you showed up late for work and gave the excuse that there had been another murder on the D train, your boss wouldn’t have bothered to question it.  When New Yorkers of a certain age refer to the “Dinkins days,” it is not a term of fond nostalgia.

And how will New Yorkers 25 years hence remember the “de Blasio days”?  Relying on recent news, we might make a guess.  The New York Post reported Thursday on the return of the “squeegee men,” those ubiquitous symbols of the dystopia into which New York City once descended.  For those too young to remember, imagine being stopped at a traffic light and watching helplessly as some street urchin, someone you might smell before you can see, runs up and sprays some kind of liquid on your windshield, smears it around with a crumpled page of newsprint, then demands to be paid for his efforts.  There was a time when you couldn’t emerge from a tunnel or exit a bridge into Manhattan without running into at least one of them.

But the squeegee men may be the least of New York’s crime problems.  According to NYPD statistics, shootings in the city are up 10.3 percent for the year (PDF), and in the 28-day period that ended July 27, they were up 21 percent over the same time period last year.  In the police precincts under the Brooklyn North command, shootings were up 52 percent for the same four-week period.  And while the bad numbers are going up, the good ones are going down: the New York Post reported in June that gun seizures by NYPD officers were down by 10.2 percent for the year.

Which brings us back to Mayor de Blasio and the dilemma he now faces.  In his campaign for office, Mr. de Blasio was openly dismissive, even contemptuous, of the “stop-and-frisk” tactics employed by the NYPD, i.e., the proactive policing measures to which an unquantifiable but surely significant portion of the decades-long drop in violent crime can be credited.  A federal judge’s ruling in a lawsuit has ended stop-and-frisk (a legal travesty thoroughly explored by my friend Heather Mac Donald here and here), and the message now being tacitly transmitted to front-line police officers is: Don’t go out there and ruffle any feathers.  If your actions result in controversy, your chain of command and your political leaders will not defend you.