“You guys gotta start writing about this,” Eric Adams commanded reporters at a June 6 press conference, flanked by his usual coterie of sullen NYPD officers. The “this” in question was gang violence, and Adams’ claim that New York habitually refuses to imprison violent criminals. The next day, stunned by his poor showing in a new Siena poll indicating that New Yorkers were starting to blame him for not alleviating their constant state of terror, a prickly Adams changed his tune. To the endless amusement of anyone who has followed Adams’ year-plus campaign to scare the bejesus out of New Yorkers, the Mayor suddenly discovered that endless crime propaganda can be bad. “I don’t know if we realize the role of what blasts on our front pages every day,” he said. “You may see a reality around you that things are doing well, but if you get on that J train and the first thing you see on the page is that someone was shot on the J train, you’re gonna disregard that you take that trip everyday and you’re not a victim of crime. That becomes your reality.”
Eric Adams became mayor by crafting the same reality he now bemoans. And since becoming mayor, Adams has consistently found it difficult to manage the forces he unleashed. The confused results have been whiplash-inducing. One day in May, Adams claimed crime had never been higher during his 40-year career, a lie so extreme he later lied again to say he simply didn’t say it. After spending the first few months of his mayoralty ducking under the yellow tape at seemingly every crime scene across the five boroughs, Adams has pulled back and allowed families to grieve in peace. Adams is now fond of pointing out that crime is worse in red states than blue states, a finding that would seem to contradict his also frequent assertion that New York’s unique lack of a “dangerousness” standard in bail setting is wreaking havoc on peace and safety.
What Adams is belatedly realizing is that, once you teach humans to be scared — once you’ve done the hard work of unmooring the emotions of the populace from the conditions on the ground — it’s not so simple to un-flip that switch. The NYPD may have tanks and rocket launchers and robot dogs, but it still hasn’t invented a real-life Men In Black neuralyzer. Whether Adams likes it or not, a pall of terror has taken over our city. It’s up to us to understand how and why.
The state of the city
It can be difficult to discuss crime in a way that doesn’t put people on the defensive. Any honest accounting of crime in New York City requires holding somewhat dissonant ideas in the brain at the same time. First, crime is, historically, very low. There were 458 murders in the city in 2021. In 1990, that number was 2,262, and in 2000, it was 673 (our population was also, of course, lower in those years). I moved to the city in 2002 — that year, there were 587 murders, and never once did I hear people warning me about crime or keeping safe.
Second, certain types of crime are higher now than they were in recent memory. For example, those 458 murders in 2021 were an increase of 30% from 2019. In that same time period, so-called “shooting incidents” more than doubled, from 777 to 1,562.
Third, some lower-income neighborhoods have consistently seen elevated crime compared to the city overall, even while those same neighborhoods have also enjoyed the overall historic decline in crime rates. So, for example, murders in Brownsville, Brooklyn are around double the citywide average as of 2020, even when the 2021 murder rate was down almost 70% compared to 1993.
Fourth, crime in New York City has overall worsened during Eric Adams’ tenure, with murders going up or down depending on the month and grand larcency, robbery, rape, assault and burglary all increasing from 2021 levels. The Adams strategy — a return to hyper-policing minor infractions and more stop-and-frisks — has failed spectacularly.
Crime crowds out action on other social problems, and this is by design.
This is all to say that almost everything we think about crime is wrong. The fear really is irrational. The police really don’t help. And yet every murder is, on some level, a tragedy. Some are heartbreaking and enraging — last month, a 15-year-old boy shot and killed an 11-year-old girl while trying to hit a 13-year-old boy. Nobody believes this is a good thing or even an ambiguous thing. Nobody wants this.
The debate in New York is not about whether murder is bad. It is about whether — in a city of 8.8 million people and many millions more visitors going in and out — 458 murders in a year is cause to place every other social issue on the back burner until you can get that number down to, say, 300, which we all apparently agree is a “good” number. It is a debate about choices, strategies, tactics and poverty. It is difficult to calculate the odds of being murdered in New York City, but this is a debate about whether one should live in a state of fear over a chance of being killed that is somewhere between .00005% and .000007% for a given year, depending on whether or how you count the millions of tourists we get. You are — I promise you — almost definitely not going to be murdered. So why are you acting like you are?
A conditioned response
Fear is a conditioned biological instinct that was almost certainly present in some form in the earliest lifeforms inhabiting our planet. In the animal kingdom, fear helps prey avoid predators. But fear can also have other, unanticipated consequences. When Yellowstone National Park reintroduced grey wolves into its ecosystem after decades of absence, a major study found that the elks that called the park home became paralyzed by fear — they ate less, birthed less and spent much of their time in a state of rigid paranoia. Eventually they began dying out, not from being eaten by wolves, but by being too scared to live.
Fear is taught. When humans left the state of nature and set down roots in the prison of language, it became possible to condition fear through symbols — signs, words, signifiers. Nowadays, we are taught fear through the words and gestures of media figures and cultural shot-callers like politicians and celebrities.
Of the 31 New York Post covers in May, only nine did not feature a crime story. For 22 days out of the month, if you saw a Post cover at a newsstand, you saw a headline about guns, murder and/or and death. To be fair, there were mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texass with big media coverage that month, but April wasn’t much different: 15 covers featuring crime stories, including headlines like “No One Safe” and “Killed On School Steps.”
A few months back, I decided to set Twitter notifications for all the tweets sent out by our local news providers, which to this day have massive audiences, especially among our city’s older population — ABC 7, CBS New York, PIX 11 and Fox 5. On any given day, at least half the tweets sent out by these accounts highlighted crime stories. The reports covered everything from brutal murders that could legitimately be called news, to the sort of anodyne muggings, robberies and burglaries that happen multiple times a day in every U.S. town and city.
All of this has an effect. In the same Siena poll that annoyed Adams, 76% of New Yorkers reported worrying that they would become the victim of a crime — 76%! A number like that cuts through every demographic. Adams came to power on this wave of paranoia. By June of 2021, a plurality of New Yorkers told New York 1 that crime was their number one election issue.
“A lot of kids are afraid,” a local parent recently told PIX 11 about kids bringing weapons to school. “It’s fear.” Yes, it is. Eric Adams, working hand-in-glove with local media, has so rattled the brains of New Yorkers that people try to justify kids bringing weapons to school for their own protection. Why?
The wages of fear
Whether Adams likes it or not, a pall of terror has taken over our city. It’s up to us to understand how and why.
New York City has a lifeguard shortage. With a target number of 1,400 to 1,500 lifeguards, the city has managed to hire just 480. As Katie Honan reported for The City, much of this shortage can be explained by the enforcement of a decades-old cost-cutting rule that bans some city workers from moonlighting as lifeguards, which would require overtime pay. To this reasoning I’d also add that lifeguards only make $16 an hour for seasonal work — not exactly a convenient or lucrative gig, especially considering the danger.
Meanwhile, four kids drowned at Queens beaches in one week in June. I’d submit that, given the much lower denominator of people who swim, there’s a far higher chance of drowning in NYC waters than being murdered on the street. And there’s an easy, uncontroversial way to prevent these deaths: more lifeguards. But because we are not being told that this is a crisis –—we are not being bombarded with headlines that no swimmer is safe and city waters have become death vortexes — there is no urgency for a fix. There is no call for more funds, or city-wide drive to draft lifeguards. We just… shrug our shoulders.
Crime crowds out action on other social problems, and this is by design. During his campaign, Adams called overcoming crime a “prerequisite” to any economic prosperity. A few days after taking office, he told StreetsBlog that talking about anything other than COVID and crime would be a “luxury” that must wait. Until recently, when he realized the Pandora’s Box he opened was threatening to swallow him whole, Adams shied away from discussing issues of housing, education, or poverty. Crime — or more accurately, the fear of crime — sucked up all the oxygen in our city.
Adams represents the epitome of the decades-long neoliberal project. He did not come to office with any sort of policy platform to address social inequities, or to help people live better, easier lives. Nor does he seem to care about these issues in any real way. His new city budget slashes public education spending and gives the savings to the NYPD. He’s proposed no citywide programs to lower housing costs. This stuff does not interest Eric Adams, former cop, like crime does, and as someone largely funded by the real estate industry, he has millions of reasons to look the other way.
Nowhere has the primacy of crime over all other social issues been more apparent than in Adams’ treatment of the homeless, also the bane of our city’s real estate barons. Although anti-loitering laws have their genesis in early capitalist English prohibitions against joblessness, it is not a crime to be homeless, and the homeless are no more likely to be violent than the housed. But homelessness, thanks to the efforts of people like Eric Adams, has become synonymous with the sort of violent disorder the fear pushers seek to convince us is omnipresent. Thus, while homelessness can only be cured with the provision of homes, instead we get brutal “sweeps” of homeless camps by riot cops, and this is called a solution.
We would also be naïve not to recognize that this push to make people tremble in fear until the cops ride to the rescue has come on the heels of the first nationwide, sustained campaign to rethink policing and, yes, reduce the funding of police departments. This is a backlash, but not an organic one. It’s a backlash that has been engineered by the people with megaphones, who drown out the chants of activists and marchers and turn their message against them.
In the end, creating a climate of fear is a buy-one-get-one-free for market fundamentalists like Eric Adams. A scared populace demands more police, more police lock up more of society’s unproductive members, and nobody has any breath left to talk about social inequities or how broke everybody is. More police don’t bring down crime, the fear increases, and the cycle continues until some superseding force reduces crime rates, or we all drown in the rising waters. We have become the Yellowstone elks, too petrified to better our lives, always looking for the wolf around the corner.
The truth is, nobody really knows why crime rises and falls. It’s not policing — studies have shown that police funding and crime rates don’t correlate, and as crime now rises in NYC the NYPD is hitting record funding levels. The dramatic decrease in crime throughout the 1990s is still a mystery to sociologists. This is not a controversial idea — so many factors go into criminal behavior (including, of course, what the law does and does not call a “crime”) that we wouldn’t expect to see any easy correlation.
That Eric Adams apparently didn’t realize this is indicative of nothing less than his total blindness to anything that doesn’t serve his own authoritarian instincts. Adams now finds himself in a bind. It was useful for him to stir up emotions and create a climate of fear to get elected. Now, people want results he can’t deliver.
The Adams coalition of hard right demagogues motivated by racism and working-class Black and Brown people who genuinely want a safer community was never sustainable. It was borne of a fear created in the backrooms of political clubhouses, the boardrooms of real estate conglomerates, editorial meetings at newspapers and newscasts, and at Zero Bond, the elite Lower Manhattan nightclub that serves as his after-hours office. The right has already turned on Adams, and the rest of the city isn’t far behind. The Mayor created a monster, and we’re the ones who have to live in its grasp.
John Teufel is a former investigator with the Civilian Complaint Review Board and a litigator who in 2021 successfully sued the city to force the release of the NYPD’s disciplinary records. He is the author of the This Month in Eric Adams monthly column. He is on Twitter @JohnTeufelNYC.
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