Decline and Fall

by Kevin D. Williamson
In New York, a pessimistic empire state of mind

It’s been a year since New York City adopted Local Law 71 with the enthusiastic support of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is now mayor of the city. Local Law 71, the so-called Community Safety Act, used the possibility of endless civil-rights litigation to gut the city’s “stop, question, and frisk” procedure for dealing with street-level crime, and Mr. de Blasio campaigned energetically on the issue, charging that the New York Police Department had “unfairly targeted young African-American and Latino men.”

I have a theory that criminals keep up with the news, perhaps by osmosis.

Monday before last, I was the subject of a half-hearted assault in front of National Review’s midtown Manhattan offices — a crazy old bum was begging and lost his temper when I did not produce the desired goods. I wasn’t hurt and do not think I was in real danger of anything worse than a possible lice infestation, and the episode, while indicative, did not surprise me. The rapid deterioration of New York City during and after Mr. de Blasio’s ascent to power is plainly visible for anybody with eyes to see.

The number of vagrants on the streets, and their aggression, is on the rise. The number of people sleeping in the City Hall and 33rd Street subway stations, the endpoints of my daily commute, is visibly higher, as is the level of vagrancy in Penn Station and Grand Central. The squeegee men are back, and their like-minded colleagues are setting up shop in churches. Violent crime around the city is up significantly. Central Park muggings and casual, racially motivated assaults are back in the news. In a city in which it is well-nigh impossible for me to carry a gun legally (I have held concealed-carry permits in other jurisdictions), shootings are up 12 percent. We are seeing increasingly Chicago-style headlines: Over one mid-August weekend, 21 people were shot.

In 2012, there were no rapes in Central Park. By September of 2013, a month after the Community Safety Act was passed, there had been a half dozen, and felonies in the park were up 10 percent. Misdemeanor sex crimes in the park rose by 100 percent. Concession-stand workers were robbed at knifepoint, and this past weekend a woman was shot in the head with an airgun by a gang of black teens shouting, “White people suck!”

In terms of the experience of street-level disorder, New York City already is a markedly different place from what it was when I arrived here only a few years ago. Criminals may not get the letter of the law, but they understand the mood and the message. They know when the police are on a short political leash and when they are not.

The stop, question, and frisk procedure drew fire because most of those stopped were black or Latino. As National Review noted at the time: “That is less surprising than it may sound: Most New Yorkers are black or Latino.” It is true that officers using the protocol stopped more young black and Latino men than a random sampling would have been expected to produce — because the program was not random. Officers stopped people in response to specific complaints and evidence. They also questioned people under the protocol much more often in areas with high crime rates, which in New York City are disproportionately black and Latino. As Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out, it is true that 87 percent of those stopped under the program were black or Latino — and 90 percent of those wanted for homicides in the city are black or Latino, too. Strangely, nobody complains that the NYPD fails to ensure that 51.5 percent of those questioned are female.

I live in a relatively safe, quiet corner of Manhattan, about 500 feet from City Hall and 700 feet from One Police Plaza. You wouldn’t expect there to be much violent crime there, and you’d be right: Zero homicides this year, zero homicides last year, and fewer than 800 serious crimes of any sort — a very low number considering the precinct’s population, which is about the same as that of Youngstown, Ohio, which has considerably more crime. But even in 1990, when the city experienced a record-setting year of 2,245 murders, there were only eight in my precinct — keeping the peace among the Wall Street guys and the occasional magazine writer living in the shadow of the NYPD headquarters is not a job that requires the services of Dick Tracy.

But there’s much more to New York than Manhattan high-rises: Shootings in the 43rd precinct, in the Bronx, are up 50 percent year-over-year. Murders, felony assaults, and grand larceny all are up steeply in Staten Island’s 121st precinct. Similar figures can be found in other precincts. These are, incidentally, the NYPD’s own CompStat numbers, which are, if the retired NYPD personnel surveyed by researchers John Eterno and Eli Silverman are to be believed, roughly the same thing that Hercules washed out of the Augean stables, the smiley-face mask on the skull. It’s reasonable to assume that the actual problem is somewhat worse than official figures indicate.

We have police with carbines and tactical helmets holding down the fort, and, presumably, the baguettes, in front of Le Pain Quotidien on Park Avenue, but doing the old-fashioned work of keeping the streets safe? Less so these days. NYPD morale has been described by leaders as “awful” and the department as “dispirited.” The police-union brass, ever mindful of subtle changes in the political winds, says that officers feel like they’re catching all the backlash against a policy imposed on them by politicians: “Being blamed for having to implement something you disagree with is a morale crusher,” said Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch. Other police officers complain that they now feel their hands are tied, that they’ll be up against the wall every time they question a young black or Latino man in a city in which such young men make up the majority of the crime suspects. That reflects a truly perverse situation: When police use more proactive means, black and Latino communities complain frequently that they feel under siege; when police back off, those communities suffer disproportionately.

It isn’t just crime, of course. The No. 6 train, one of the busiest subway lines, today is delayed 23 percent of the time, and it is dirtier than the city’s average. The A train runs on schedule less than three-fourths of the time. In what strikes me as a highly symbolic episode, not only do the trains fail to run on time, they have been running headlong in the wrong direction lately: A subway operator recently was reassigned to desk duty — because you cannot possibly fire anybody — after running an express train the wrong way on the tracks, risking a serious, head-on collision. A dispatcher tried to contact the train but was unable to get through to its operators — comforting thought. Never fear, said the subway authority, the train was going only 10 mph — because the City that Never Sleeps is unclear on the meaning of “express.” That’s New York City under Mayor de Blasio — plodding along slowly, blindly, in the wrong direction, toward a head-on collision.

If there is a large crime wave coming to New York City, you can bet it will be something like the waves associated with Hurricane Sandy. The elevators were out for a week in my building, but I was working poolside from my laptop a couple of thousand miles away in a sunny, dry place, and most of my neighbors were doing approximately the same thing. I came back when things had mostly returned to New York’s approximation of normal. When there’s trouble in the city, it isn’t normally the people with resources who really suffer — we have a choice about whether to be here or somewhere else. Cities such as Detroit and Cleveland have inflicted enough man-made disasters on their populations that the people with sufficient incentive and means have simply left, with consequences that are now impossible to miss when visiting either city. I was not in New York for the last flood, and I won’t be here for the next one, either, whatever form it takes.

 Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.