Why are homicide rates skyrocketing? Can Mayor Adams stem surging violent crime?


Why are we killing each other?

At the height of the crack epidemic (1990) there were 2262 homicides in New York City; in 2019 there were 295 homicides.  From Dinkins to Giuliani to Bloomberg to de Blasio, from “broken windows” to “stop and frisk” to a “tale of two cities” the homicide rates continued to spiral downwards – until COVID.

What were we doing right? 

In March, 2020 COVID struck.

Homicide rates in New York soared,

2020: 462

2021: 488

What are we doing wrong?

New York City had been one of the safest cities in the nation; while homicide rates were ballooning across the nation, homicide rates in New York City continued to decline.

In March, 2020 as COVID ravaged the nation schools moved to fully remote, the economy crashed and the Biden administration poured billions of dollars to keep the nation going; unemployment was rampant as jobs disappeared.

Unexpectedly, homicide rates across the nation, including New York City increased sharply.

The tabloids, the NY Post and the Daily News headlined homicides and shootings, friends from across the country asked if I was safe.

While the spike in homicides, and shooting incidents was beyond distressing the rates were far, far below other cities.

See homicide rates across the nation in 2020 here   and 2021 here

.The homicides in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, St Louis and other cities set records.

The Philadelphia Mayor said, “It’s terrible to every morning get up and have to go look at the numbers and then look at the news and see the stories. It’s just crazy. It’s just crazy and this needs to stop,” after his city surpassed its annual homicide record of 500, which stood since 1990.

Philadelphia has had more homicides this year (521 as of Dec. 6) than the nation’s two largest cities, New York (443 as of Dec. 5) and Los Angeles (352 as of Nov. 27). That’s an increase of 13% from 2020, a year that nearly broke the 1990 record.

According to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report released in September 2021, the nation saw a 30% increase in murder in 2020, the largest single-year jump since the bureau began recording crime statistics 60 years ago.

A retired New York Police Department detective said that while there is no single reason for the jump in slayings, one national crime statistic stands out to him.

“Nobody’s getting arrested anymore,” the detective said. “People are getting picked up for gun possession and they’re just let out over and over again.”

The FBI crime data shows that the number of arrests nationwide plummeted 24% in 2020, from the more than 10 million arrests made in 2019. The number of 2020 arrests — 7.63 million — is the lowest in 25 years, according to the data. FBI crime data is not yet available for 2021.

Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor in the Department of Law & Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the decrease in arrests could be attributed to the large number of police officers who retired or resigned in 2020 and 2021.

 … a confluence of other factors has also contributed to the spike in lethal violence over the last two years. He said the COVID-19 pandemic not only prompted a shutdown of courts and reduction in jail population to slow the spread of the virus but also derailed after-school programs and violence disruption programs.

Dr. Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said 2020 was the “perfect storm” of conditions where “everything bad happened at the same time — you had the COVID outbreak, huge economic disruption, people were scared.

Webster added, “It’s particularly challenging to know with certainty which of these things independently is associated with the increased violence. Rather it was the ‘cascade’ of events all unfolding in a similar time frame.”

See detailed discussion here

We’re only three weeks into 2022, the homicide data New York City compared to last year is substantially lower while other serious crimes continue to climb (see COMSTAT data here)

Mayor Adams, a retired police captain has made reducing crime his top priority.

Crime is at the top of the political agenda for Republicans who claim Democrats are “soft on crime,”  New York State passed a bail reform law, reducing the requirement for cash bail for minor offenses, Republicans point to the reductions in cash bail as playing a role in the spike in crime, supporters of the law say the data does not support the accusation (See Report here)

Others on the conservative side proffer the attacks on the police, changes in laws protecting police from law suits; the “defund the police” movement has resulted in police being less proactive.

Criminologists, sociologists, psychologists, electeds have all parsed the reams of data to attempt to provide an “answer:” why did the homicide rate in New York City decline precipitously while in other cities the rate has been persistently high and increasing and why have New York City crime rates spiked and continue to rise? What happened?

Did Broken Windows” and “Stop and “Frisk” policing reduce crime?

The eight years of Giuliani and the twelve years of Bloomberg were years of what critics called “harsh” policing. Arresting turnstile jumpers and public intoxicators, “stop and frisk” widely used in communities of color targeting young men of color, policies that both administrations claim reduced homicide rates.

De Blaso abandoned these policies and crime rates continued to decline at even faster rates.

A 2000 National Bureau of Economic Research study reports,

Many attribute New York’s crime reduction to specific “get-tough” policies carried out by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration. The most prominent of his policy changes was the aggressive policing of lower-level crimes, a policy which has been dubbed the “broken windows” approach to law enforcement. In this view, small disorders lead to larger ones and perhaps even to crime.

 In Carrots, Sticks and Broken Windows (NBER Working Paper No. 9061), co-authors Hope Corman and Naci Mocan find that the “broken windows” approach does not deter as much crime as some advocates argue, but it does have an effect

 Skeptics believe that it was the economic boom of the 1990s – a “carrot” that encourages people to remain on the straight-and-narrow – that brought about the drop in crime rates in New York City and the nation.

 The contribution of such deterrence measures (the “stick”) offers more explanation for the decline in New York City crime than the improvement in the economy, the authors conclude.

 So, “broken windows” had an impact; although not as much as claimed by the proponents.

Will Adams return to “broken windows?” 

How do you stop the flow of illegal guns into NYC? Adams and Governor Hochul suggest stopping cars entering New York State suspected of smuggling guns: Will the courts allow?

Did the “deinstitutionalization’ of mental health lead to more violent people on the streets? Is there a remedy?

Was Chirlane McCray de Blasio’s Thrive Program the right idea poorly implemented?

There are a number of theories why homicides dropped so precipitously: a controversial theory;

 The Impact of Legalized Abortion

 A far more controversial theory comes from the “freakonomics” guys called the Donohue-Leavitt Hypothesis  that proffers that the Supreme Court Roe v Wade decision, the legal accessibility of abortions, resulted in sharp decreases in a generation of potential victims and perpetrators.  Males from poor dysfunctional households who were not born could not be victims or perps therefore resulting in sharp decreases in serious crime rates. The hypothesis has been vigorously debated.


 Gentrification is defined as “… the renovation of a deteriorating urban neighborhood by means of the influx of more affluent residents.” The process in New York City has been accelerating; Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, Williamsburg, Washington Heights and other neighborhoods have seen the steady flow of middle class families into the neighborhoods pushing the poorer residents into existing “ghetto” neighborhoods.  New York State Juvenile Justice Task Force data shows that juvenile perpetrators are increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer neighborhoods; the concentration of potential victims and perpetrators into smaller geographic areas.

Some would argue gentrification has reduced crime in gentrified neighborhoods and increased crime as more and more potential victims and perpetrators live closer together.

Small High Schools

 Disconnected youth is defined as youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not working and not in school. Higher crime/arrest rates, higher controlled substance involvement, high pregnancy rates, a long list of negative metrics, and, cities and states around the nation are struggling to create programs to engage youth.

For almost two years schools have been remote in many sections of the nation, untold numbers of secondary school students have been “disconnected,” and, both victims and perpetrators may very well fall into this category. For decades New York City has provided Transfer Schools, schools for under-credited and over-age students, in other words, “connecting” students, “connections” for many students who have been “disconnected” for two years. In the close to 500 small high schools, schools with between 200 – 400 students teachers know all students, have connections, in the traditional large high schools with thousands of kids too many get lost.

A research project for someone?

New York City has done a commendable job of keeping school-age kids engaged in the school system before the epidemic; the New York Times Corona Tracker shows decreases in positive testing each day and school daily attendance is beginning to increase, Will the crime rates begin  recede?

Adams mayoralty may hinge on his ability to stem violent crime.

One thought on “Why are homicide rates skyrocketing? Can Mayor Adams stem surging violent crime?

  1. Thanks for the nod to the small schools movement in NYC in the first decade of this century. No other initiative has resulted in the creation of more good schools and contributed as much to the rise in high school graduation rates.

    The degree of personalization snd connection that these new small schools have provided for our students may well have contributed to the decline in crime that NYC experienced. In large measure, the reversal of this trend can be blamed both on the pandemic and DeBlasio’s misguided decision to halt the development of new small schools.

    Let’s hope that the Adams/Banks administration continues to create new small district and charter schools both for the students and families they serve and for the positive spillover effect on the rest of us.


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