Violent crime has exploded across New York City. Though murders and shootings are down slightly from 2021 — so far — the tremendous increase in 2020 and 2021 put us well beyond where we should be.
Other serious crimes continue to rise. Mugging, purse and chain snatching and car theft are all up by double digits. Felony assault is way up. Grand larceny in Midtown Manhattan — where tourists and office workers need to feel safe if the city is really going to come back — has almost doubled over last year.
The city has been here before — we can recover. I offer three proposals that, if implemented swiftly and with care, could make a significant dent in the crime wave.
1) Restore the anti-crime units
In 2020, in the midst of the civil unrest rocking the nation after George Floyd’s death, the de Blasio administration abolished the NYPD’s anti-crime units. They were composed of experienced, plain-clothed officers tasked with fighting street crime and getting guns off the streets.
The division was disbanded hastily and for no good reason. Street crime’s sharp rise following the move was surely a function of the sudden disappearance of one of the NYPD’s most effective tools to combat mugging, robbery and weapons violations. In the absence of the anti-crime units, criminals and predators were given license to steal.
Mayor Eric Adams has, to his credit, partly restored the units. But contrary to his campaign promise to bring the officers back in plain clothes, the new Neighborhood Safety Teams wear uniforms, though they’re less immediately identifiable than standard NYPD-issued gear.
That’s a mistake. Fighting street crime often requires surveillance and surprise. Plainclothes officers in street clothes can mix closely with criminals and stop them in the middle of their malfeasance. Uniformed officers may as well be waving a flag and warning criminals of their presence. The NYPD used to have anti-crime officers drive taxicabs, linger in stores prone to being held up and set decoys, effective strategies to stop crime and seize illegal weapons.
When officers have a reasonable suspicion that someone is involved in a crime, they are constitutionally permitted to stop the person and ask what he or she is doing. And they’re allowed to pat down the suspect to determine if he or she is carrying a weapon that may harm the officer. The Supreme Court decided this more than 50 years ago in Terry v. Ohio. The practice is authorized in the Criminal Procedure Law of New York state. It is good law and solid police practice.
Judicious use of stop, question and frisk was instrumental in driving down crime in New York City. At the height of its use, the NYPD recorded roughly 600,000 stops a year. While this was widely reported in sensationalistic terms, consider that the NYPD has about 19,000 officers on patrol, so 600,000 stops come out roughly to each officer performing one stop every couple of weeks.
Stop, question and frisk was never a blanket approach: It was done prudently, when officers truly had a reasonable suspicion that a crime was in commission. And it worked. It resulted in thousands of weapons seizures and a steep decline in street crime: Knowing you might be stopped served as a powerful deterrent.
Most important, it saved thousands of lives. It broke the culture of routine gun-toting by some community elements and lowered the temperature of the streets. Random shows of hostility seldom escalated into gunplay, as has increasingly become the case.
The use of stop, question and frisk has declined dramatically to roughly 1,000 per month. This is not enough. Cops are observing likely criminality and turning away because they’ve been discouraged from employing this valuable tool. We can increase stop, question and frisk and make the city safer while respecting people’s rights.
Our subways are the arteries of our city. When running at capacity, they transport millions of workers, students and visitors to every corner of New York, around the clock. But if people don’t feel safe on the trains, they won’t ride them. It’s simply too scary to be caught underground in a metal tube if there’s the threat of being preyed upon by criminals.
Before 2020, there was an average of one or two murders in the subway system every year. The last two years have seen 18 murders, plus a mass shooting by a maniac who miraculously didn’t kill any of the dozen people he wounded. Seriously mentally ill people have been allowed to camp out in the subway, where they behave erratically and sometimes lash out. Transit crime has increased more sharply than crime aboveground.
The turnaround in New York City 30 years ago began underground. The city put cops on subway platforms and an officer on every train in the evenings and overnight. Knowing that police officers are on board or nearby chills the enthusiasm of opportunistic criminals to rob, beat or shove ordinary people on their way home or out for recreation.
Adams and Commissioner Keechant Sewell have indicated they want to get more officers into the system, but they must pursue this goal aggressively. Office workers and tourists will simply not come back to Manhattan if they’re afraid to ride the subways. Every day New Yorkers also deserve to ride in peace throughout the five boroughs.
The city is at a critical juncture. We are being swallowed by a rising tide of crime. But taking these basic steps would stem the tide, restore public safety and increase the confidence of law-abiding people that the streets belong to them.
It has been done before. It can be done again.
Ray Kelly was NYPD commissioner from 1992 to 1994 and from 2002 to 2013.