Bill de Blasio looked tired on a recent Tuesday morning as he sat wedged between NYPD brass within a police substation on the Lower East Side.
His delivery was somber because he had to talk about the Las Vegas massacre, the never-ending threat of gun violence and the vast cowardice of federal lawmakers to do anything about it. But when it came to violence closer to home, the mayor had good news to share. “The facts that we’re going to give you about the month of September are outstanding. Crime continues to fall,” he said. Overall, crime was down 5 percent compared with last September. Murders were 40 percent lower. Shootings hit a record low. It was the kind of stat sheet that mayors dream of presenting a month ahead of a general election. “We are the safest big city in America,” de Blasio went on, “and I’m telling you now we will get safer.”
In fact, the data the mayor dished that day is only part of what his allies say is an overwhelmingly positive picture of law and order in de Blasio’s New York. Statistics that City Limits obtained from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services demonstrate that just as there is less crime in the city these days, there is less policing as well—in keeping with the mayor’s promise during the 2013 campaign to make law enforcement less intrusive.
From January through August of 2017, there were 500 fewer people busted for the lowest marijuana-possession offense than in the same period of 2016. Arrests for turnstile jumping were down by a 26 percent. Nearly 19 percent fewer people were nailed for criminal trespass and the number of busts for petit larceny was down more than 6 percent. And 2016 was already a low year for arrests: The number of misdemeanor arrests last year was one-fifth lower than it was in 2013 when Mike Bloomberg was mayor.
Both the crime stats and the arrest numbers are part of a peculiar dynamic as the mayor’s 2017 re-election campaign enters its final phase. De Blasio’s foes on the right habitually accuse him of presiding over a city descending into disorder, even as the crime statistics present strong evidence to the contrary. His critics on the left say he has fallen short of the ambitious police reform agenda he should have pursued, because even though the numbers of arrests and stops has plummeted, the NYPD still busts large numbers of people for minor crimes.
Meanwhile, the mayor pledges fealty to “broken windows” policing—a proclamation that, besides not satisfying either set of opponents, defends a theory that de Blasio’s own administration might be disproving as it continues to watch crime fall even as it busts fewer and fewer people for minor crimes.
De Blasio was elected in 2013 in large part because of a simple promise to change policing policy. But the contours of that issue have been anything but simple—skewed by hostile media, shaped by tragedies here as well as the national climate, complicated by the mayor’s own rhetoric.
A steady decline in crime
The crime statistics might be the simplest part of the de Blasio crime story, and even those aren’t one-dimensional. The most widely cited crime count—the major seven felonies that are reported to the FBI—were down 8.6 percent from 2013 to 2016. Over that span the number of murders was steady (with the city’s population growing, that translates to a slightly lower murder rate). The number of rapes and assaults actually rose slightly. But the other “index” crimes—robbery, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft—all dropped. So far in 2017, crime is down in every single category.
The seven index crimes are seen as indicators of safety in the city, but they aren’t the only crimes New Yorkers commit or fall victim to. The so-called “non-seven major” felonies rose 1.2 percent during the 2013-2016 span, while reports of misdemeanors shrunk by 12 percent. Adding it all together, there were 10 percent fewer reports of crimes in 2016 compared with Bloomberg’s final year.
A steady media narrative about outbreaks of violence, especially in the New York Post, has run counter to the reality of falling crime in the city under de Blasio. Regardless of who is mayor, the city’s tabloids like to sensationalize violence, and this can create a false perception of how dangerous the New York is. Even when the tabs acknowledge decreases in crime, those reports rarely get “the wood.” But the coverage during the de Blasio era has seemed more aggressive, with violence cast as a direct indictment of the mayor’s approach to criminal justice. It’s not been subtle. The Post has printed the phrase “the war on cops” in items featuring de Blasio’s name 127 times during this mayoral term.
Some of de Blasio’s critics wonder if crimes are going unreported. This is almost certainly the case, but so has it been for every mayor. During the Bloomberg era, there was more than one controversy over efforts within the NYPD to suppress crime reports. Nothing convincing has surfaced during the de Blasio era to suggest that more crimes are going unreported now than in earlier years. And other indicators seem to back up a story of declining crime: The number of crime-in-progress calls to the NYPD has also fallen from 275,032 in fiscal year 2015 (the first year for which they were kept) to 255,489 in 2017.
De Blasio’s chief general election opponent, the Staten Island Republican Assemblyman Nicole Malliotakis, has highlighted increases in specific categories of crime, like “felony sex crimes,” a category of non-index felonies that includes crimes like sexual abuse and female genital mutilation. She’s also hyped individual incidents of crime, like an October 3 Daily News story about a man who defecated outside a Manhattan building and then slashed an elderly guy who confronted him. “Welcome to de Blasio’s New York,” she commented as she posted the poopy tale on Facebook. It’s a fairly transparent effort to cherry-pick bad news and move the goal posts now that the leap in crime that the tabloids predicted under de Blasio has failed to materialize—a way to dust-off an old playbook for beating progressives even though the factual basis is hollow.
In this cartoon version of “de Blasio’s New York,” rising crime is the inevitable consequences of the mayor’s criminal justice policies—in particular the lower level of arrest activity. The number of arrests in New York has been falling since 2010, but the pace has about doubled under de Blasio.
During Bloomberg’s final four years (2010-2013), total arrests fell 7.5 percent; felony busts during that period were fairly stable but misdemeanor collars fell about 10 percent. The pace of the decline quickened notably under the current mayor. From 2013 through 2016, under de Blasio, total arrests are down by 15 percent and misdemeanor bookings are lower by about 21 percent. All the related numbers are down, too: Jail admissions and average daily population (-28 percent and -19 percent, respectively), summonses (-37 percent) and, of course, reports of stop-question-and-frisk activity. Though they were already headed down under Bloomberg but the bottom fell out once de Blasio took office, plummeting from 192,000 stops in 2013 to just over 12,400 last year.
Just as de Blasio’s foes on the right question the crime stats, his critics on the left sometimes wonder if the official reports on stops, summonses and arrests are failing to capture police-civilian encounters. It’s hard to refute that skepticism—after all, at least some of the increase in stop-and-frisk under Bloomberg was chalked up to better record-keeping, not increased NYPD activity—but the available evidence weighs against it. Complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board are down 22 percent since de Blasio became mayor. There are lots of possible reasons for that, but fewer police encounters is a pretty likely one.
More insightful critics dig deeper than the headline numbers. Take arrests for turnstile jumping. Sure, it’s dropped each year de Blasio’s been mayor. But there were still 26,500 arrests for that crime over the past 12 months. And there is ample evidence of a racial skew about who gets collared for it. According to a new report from the Community Service Society, Blacks make up 29 percent of adults living in poverty in Brooklyn but 66 percent of the people picked up for fare evasion. “The evidence implies that fare evasion arrests are concentrated at subway stations in and around the poorer neighborhoods of Brooklyn, but much more so at stations near high-poverty black neighborhoods,” the authors of the report, Harold Stolper and Jeff Jones, write. “And while area poverty and criminal complaints play a factor in fare evasion arrests, neither fully account for this racial disparity.”
Critique and consequences
The irony is, those turnstile arrest numbers embody just the kind of racial disparity that de Blasio first targeted when, late in his career as a Councilman, he began to get press for his comments about police reform. His messaging on the issue helped him get to City Hall in 2013 but it also created the political maze he has had to navigate—with mixed success—as mayor.
As chair of the general welfare committee during his 2002-2009 stint on the Council, de Blasio was not in a position to regularly weigh in on policing policy and when he did, it was not as a strident critic of the NYPD. In 2003, for example, de Blasio actually called for giving the department wider powers, recommending that parks enforcement officers report to the police.
A stronger tone began to emerge when he ran for public advocate in 2009. As that year’s Democratic primary approached, de Blasio introduced and became co-sponsor of bills to give the Civilian Complaint Review Board the authority to launch and prosecute cases on its own. After winning the race and taking office in 2010, de Blasio again pushed for CCRB reform, and he also supported a state law banning the cops from keeping a database of names of people stopped but not arrested.
The following year he demanded a stronger response from One Police Plaza to the ticket-fixing scandal in the Bronx, alleging a cover up, and also said the police raid on Occupy Wall Street was “needlessly provocative,” though he blamed that on Bloomberg rather than the cops.
In 2012, as a run for mayor loomed, de Blasio was just as likely to call for tougher law enforcement as he was to advocate reining in the police. He called for measures to protect kids from sexual predators, backed a bill strengthening sanctions against subway “grinders” and demanded more transparency in reporting about crime in parks. He made a speech defending the NYPD against charges that it had improperly spied on Muslims. De Blasio did weigh in on a number of police shootings over the course of the year, but he usually eschewed any direct condemnation of the cops in favor of a demand for a quick or thorough investigation.
At the same time, de Blasio began to gain profile as a critic of stop and frisk. He released a report critical of the tactic in May, marched in a silent protest about it in June and was lampooned by a July editorial in the pro-frisk Daily News. Yet de Blasio was careful not to suggest that the tactic was totally inappropriate. In fact, he said 100,000 to 200,000 stops a year would be acceptable and as the 2013 campaign heated up, de Blasio never called for the elimination of stop and frisk. The only candidate who did call for total abolition was then-Comptroller John Liu.
A campaign finance debacle all but knocked Liu out of the race, however, and after Anthony Weiner’s implosion that left de Blasio, Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson as viable candidates. All three had similar positions on what needed to happen with stop and frisk—that it be reformed and reduced. De Blasio supported more aggressive legislative efforts to make that happen, but what really separated him from other Democrats was not his policy on stop-and-frisk but the emphasis he placed on it. He made it the central issue in his campaign, running that powerful commercial featuring his son Dante in which de Blasio’s campaign claimed he was the only candidate who would “end a stop-and-frisk era that targets minorities.”
It was a clever use of language, vowing to end an era rather than a policy. It gave de Blasio wiggle room when it came to the tactics cops under his command might use. But it also was vague enough to leave some reformers with the impression that the mayor sought bolder change than he actually wanted. There is a lot of room for interpretation when you promise to end an era.
The first year: Tumult and tragedy
By elevating police reform to the top of his agenda, de Blasio opened the door for his opponents to stoke fears that his election was going to usher in a crime wave. Given New Yorkers’ intrinsic fear of a return to “the bad old days,” this turned de Blasio’s strongest election issue into his biggest political vulnerability as mayor-elect. De Blasio moved to shore up that flank by announcing soon after the election that Bill Bratton would be his police commissioner, which reassured the business community, subdued the editorial pages and probably bought de Blasio some credibility—or at least cooperation—in the ranks of the NYPD. The announcement raised suspicions among criminal-justice reform advocates that de Blasio was not interested in radical change.
But there were changes. “The problem,” of stop and frisk “has been more or less solved,” was Bratton’s declaration 14 days into de Blasio’s term, and indeed, the number of stops fell dramatically under the new regime. The reforms, however, went beyond those numbers. The city dropped the Bloomberg-initiated appeal of a federal court ruling that stop-and-frisk was being used unconstitutionally, announced changes to a program that had flooded high-crime precincts with raw rookie officers and instructed cops on “Seven Steps to Positive Community Interactions.” De Blasio appointed the NYPD’s first inspector general and Bratton disbanded the unit that had drawn up dossiers of mosques and Middle Eastern restaurants.
“Minutes after he was elected he dropped the litigation and that was huge,” says Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “That was really, really, really important. That was a campaign pledge and he acted consistent with the campaign.”
The mayor’s appetite for reform had its limits, however. This became clear when district attorneys Ken Thompson and Cy Vance moved to scale back low-level marijuana arrests: De Blasio reacted cautiously, and Bratton dismissed the move.
The tension between the calls for deeper reform and what the electorate and Bratton would tolerate meant a precarious balancing act for the mayor. But after Eric Garner was taken down on a Stapleton street corner on a day in early July 2014 and died, the mayor struggled to find a new equilibrium among the shockwaves. He let Rev. Al Sharpton dominate a City Hall conference at which Bratton was present, infuriating cops. The mayor also defended “broken windows” policing—”Breaking a law is breaking a law, and it has to be addressed,” he said—angering police reform critics.
“I believe that what he learned and what we as a city and a country are learning is that the distrust that was bred by 20 years of broken windows policing and the war on drugs—which was even longer—does not go away overnight,” Lieberman says.
As summer 2014 turned to fall, national headlines about the deaths Michael Brown and Tamir Rice added to the local pressure for reform. De Blasio moved to scale back the very marijuana arrests that Bratton had defended a few months earlier. But he also resisted a push to make police chokeholds illegal.
Then came the tragic whirlwind of December: a grand jury failing to indict the cop whose takedown killed Garner, de Blasio talking of warning Dante about encounters with police, cop unions accusing the mayor of throwing officers under the bus, and a psychopath from Baltimore driving up the Saturday before Christmas to find and assassinate Officers Rafael Ramos and Wen Jian Liu. PBA head Pat Lynch indicated he held de Blasio responsible for the deaths.
According to multiple sources, the Dante comments were only part of what incensed police officers. They felt de Blasio’s handling of the protests in mid-December, where a small offshoot group was caught cheering for “dead cops” and another group of demonstrators roughed up officers patrolling a march across the Brooklyn bridge, was inadequate. For some, the conference with Sharpton loomed large. (“Al Sharpton is like poison ivy to the police department,” quips veteran cops reporter Len Levitt. ) The stories about Rachel Noerdlinger, a top aide to First Lady Chirlane McCray whose boyfriend had an extensive criminal record, only upped the ante. In the background was frustration that front-line cops were still working without a contract.
Whatever the motivation, cops turned their backs on the mayor in the hospital hallway on when he came to see the slain officers. They shunned him at the cops’ funerals, too. Then they staged a work slowdown. This raised the possibility that the NYPD would turn on the mayor.
Officially, the NYPD is under civilian control. Its officers take a solemn oath, and the vast majority honor it daily. But the fact is the police department is a 35,000-member armed force, spread out across 77 precincts and dozens of special units, commanded by people wearing everything from chief’s stars to sergeant’s stripes, represented by five different unions. It would not have been crazy for the mayor to fear a mutiny—not an armed uprising, but a passive effort by thousands of cops to simply do less enforcement, with potentially disastrous political consequences for the mayor. The early 2015 work slowdown didn’t trigger a leap in crime but over a longer period it likely would have.
Bratton, according to published reports, snuffed the rebellion out. This only increased the commissioner’s political value. By some accounts, it was Bratton’s advocacy later in 2015 that got de Blasio to reverse himself on the question of whether to add headcount to the NYPD: Despite having opposed such requests in the past, the mayor met the Council’s request for 1,000 new cops and added them 300 more. Advocates for police reform were furious at the move.
“It’s disappointing and perplexing that the city budget will increase the NYPD headcount when systemic problems with police accountability and culture that allow New Yorkers to be abused and killed have yet to be fixed—and while major needs in our communities are under-resourced,” said Monifa Bandele, spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, at the time.
It’s impossible to say what the past three years would have looked like had Garner, Liu and Ramos not been killed. No one outside de Blasio’s circle knows what his four-year agenda for police reform looked like before those tragedies changed the landscape.
It is likely that the mayor was going to fall short of what some reform advocates—not just the impractically radical ones who want to “abolish the police” but elements like Faith in New York who seek achievable change—were hoping for. The emphasis he placed on stop-and-frisk in 2013 might have suggested to some that de Blasio wanted to effect a radical shift on how policing is done in New York City. But his positions were always limited and cautious, reflecting some mix of personal instincts and electoral calculations.
“I’m not that surprised by where we are now,” Lieberman says. “The mayor indicated a desire to try to use government to solve problems in more progressive ways. He also made it clear that he wasn’t totally against stop-and-frisk, that he remained committed to the broken windows theory – he said all these things on the campaign trail.”
What has bedeviled the mayor is that he’s not always been as careful about his rhetoric and optics as he has about his policy stance. His trip to Germany after Officer Miosotis Familia’s murder this summer gained him nothing and cost him any faint hope of regaining some goodwill among officers. His comments after the Garner grand jury decision offended cops, yet they did not deliver any meaningful reform to those seeking deeper change.
“I think it was a huge mistake to talk about how he has to talk to his son about cops. You’re the mayor of all the people for the city New York,” says veteran civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel. “There’s a way to talk about the stereotyping and the history of racism and the police without rubbing the current police into cement. Why do you say things like that?”
The mayor’s rapid denunciation of Sgt. Hugh Barry after the Deborah Danner killing had the same effect. Although Barry was eventually charged with murder, cops felt the mayor rendered a verdict before the facts were in. “Even a police officer has basic rights. You cannot do that,” says John Eterno, a retired police captain who teaches at Molloy College. “The mayor has no business. He should have said nothing and left it to the police commissioner.”
A complex record
Shortly after de Blasio’s move to expand NYPD headcount, the killing of NYPD Officer Randolph Holder in the fall of 2015 prompted de Blasio to press for stronger rules against bailing out dangerous suspects before trial. Making public safety an explicit consideration in the bail process has often been part of the broader push for bail reform but the mayor’s giving the public-safety issue prominence was pointed.
It wasn’t the only time the mayor broke with reformers. He was skeptical of the City Council’s push to decriminalize some offenses, has opposed the Right to Know Act and has taken an unusually restrictive view of the law around public disclosure of police disciplinary records. He rebuffed calls to close Rikers until the eleventh hour, and his plan for shuttering the island jails has a 10-year timeline that puts crunch-time well beyond the end of his second term.
Most important, he has defended broken windows policing and his administration has continued to arrest thousands of people for crimes like turnstile jumping and small-scale marijuana possession. This was the case well before the Ramos and Liu deaths. On December 19, 2014, de Blasio made perhaps his most extensive comments on the theory since becoming mayor. “Because of the broken windows approach, we are the safest we’ve ever been. And I lived through the 1980s in this city, and the early 90s, and I don’t ever want to go back there, and I don’t think any New Yorker wants to go back there,” he said.
“We saw the decline of whole neighborhoods and a sense of disorder,” he went on. “And I equate the broken windows theory with a consistent commitment to responsive policing – policing that addresses community concerns, that addresses any call that a community member makes asking for help, that does not ignore the little things, because the little things can turn into big things, that recognizes that sometimes the perpetrator of a small crime is actually someone who has done a lot worse or might do a lot worse, and that small crime leads us to someone with a weapon or with a bad intention that we need to get ahead of. So I think there’s a lot of reasons to believe in that theory.”
But since then, the mayor has repeated versions of that defense several times. While sometimes he notes that broken windows must evolve, he never strays from the theory itself.
“My sense is what drives a lot of this is a deep personal and political concern about disorderly behavior,” says Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College. “He really believes that if you don’t manage homeless squeegee men that that will engender the political backlash that brought [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani to power. That’s a very legitimate concern. He in crucial instances has chosen policing over less invasive, less punitive approaches.”
The mayor’s allies, like Citizens Crime Commission head Richard Aborn, insist there was no change in de Blasio’s trajectory after the dramatic winter of 2014-2015.
“The fact of the police officers turning their backs on the mayor had to be personally very hurtful,” Aborn says. “But he stayed the course.”
De Blasio has put forward other reforms that don’t get as much press as the stop-and-frisk reduction: expanding restorative justice mechanisms, creating new diversion programs, funding “cure violence” programs, adopting body cameras, providing implicit-bias training to police officers and implementing the “neighborhood policing” initiative.
Neighborhood Policing is the brain-child of James O’Neill, who took over from Bratton in the summer of 2016. While a protege of the former commissioner, O’Neill represents a new generation of police leadership. Unlike Bratton, he is not personally associated with the “broken windows” era. The decrease in misdemeanor arrests has accelerated since O’Neill took the helm, and it is possible that—once a second term is secured—he and de Blasio will pursue deeper reforms. And it’s possible that those changes will move the city further away from the broken windows approach, even if the mayor’s hear remains there.
In an interview with City Limits and the Nation last year, de Blasio indicated there was more he wanted to do. “There’s some elements of it that I’m going to be concerned with how to sequence properly because I want it stick. I want it to work with the day to day reality of the NYPD. … There’s waves upon waves of reform and they have to be secured. They have to work.”
A new calculus
Whatever that agenda includes, it will play out in a different arena than de Blasio’s first term. Bratton and ally Melissa Mark-Viverito are gone. There’ll be a new Council speaker and several new councilmembers to deal with, and they along with the borough presidents and other citywide officials will be facing term limits in 2021 and might stake out positions that make the mayor’s life difficult. On the other hand, the mayor will likely enter a second term with a strong mandate from the voters. The wild card is Albany—control of the state senate, Gov. Cuomo’s national ambitions and more.
Some of the challenges remain internal. Eterno holds out some hope that de Blasio can repair his relationship with the rank-and-file of the police department, although it will take a different approach. “Ask the cops. Ask and work with them. And I think you’ll find a lot of people who are willing to help,” he says. “What happens is, officers graduate the police academy. And at the police academy they’re filled with all these good thoughts. They want to help. And then they hit the streets. They hit a police culture that is just a mess—and not just the culture but the bureaucracy as well that fundamentally pulls them down and makes them feel that they’re not able to do all the things they want to do to help.”
By far, Rikers is the biggest item on the second-term agenda. If it was sincere—and there are those who doubt it was—de Blasio’s pledge to close the island jails will require bold steps. Closing Rikers means getting the numbers there down even further, and that means figuring out a way to keep not just misdemeanor defendants, but also people accused of more serious and perhaps violent crimes, free before trial. The political risks of action are as obvious as the human toll of accepting the status quo.
“I don’t think he’s fallen short,” says Aborn, assessing de Blasio’s approach to crime and justice. “This is a long journey, not a sprint. Whoever thought that a man or woman running for mayor would call for local jails during an election year?”
The stats de Blasio reviewed at that subdued briefing earlier this month are what has given him the ability to do that. They’ve bought him capital to use. Slowly, even his enemies are begrudgingly recognizing that the reports of lower crime are not a lie. And his erstwhile allies acknowledge the police have stepped away from the aggressive strategies of early eras. It’s just that they haven’t stepped far enough.
“The data is moving in the right direction, for sure,” Lieberman says. “Has New York City changed the infrastructure so that it would be a heavy lift to return to the kind of racist policies that characterized the 90s and the last 20 years of the prior administrations? No.”