Crime and the very human, very disturbing stories we tell ourselves

In 2005, the year I moved to New York, the NYPD recorded 135,475 crimes in seven “major crime” categories—murder, assault, rape, and various forms of theft. The following year, this number decreased and continued to decrease. By 2017, it was around 96,000, where it stayed until last year, when it rebounded to more than 100,000, largely due to an increase in grand theft auto and other traffic. “Non-major” crime data followed a similar arc, falling almost 30 percent since 2005. According to official crime figures, the most dangerous year I lived in New York was my first year – by a lot.

So why do people ask me if I’m safe here? Last week, I assured a friendly older gentleman in the city from Boston that violent crime is on the rise here since the pandemic — almost perfect as he strolled around the delicious restaurant-filled blocks near Times Square. Statistically, the Big Apple is safer than small-town America and homicide rate per capita At the beginning of 2022, it was in last place on the list of major cities. I was intrigued and confused to hear that people from my hometown (which leads upstate New York in crime statistics) could take a day trip to the city. Eat some Christmas decorations and some roasted chestnuts, but they won’t travel here again because they think it’s a war zone.

Emotional stories speak louder than facts, perhaps especially in a storied city like New York. Joan Didion, who wrote urban crime stories in a much more dangerous era, wrote of observers’ “preference for broad strokes, the distortion and flattening of character, and the reduction of events to narrative”—in other words, an almost universal desire. make stories out of feelings and then believe them. When people ask me if New York is safe, they don’t want to know the numbers. They ask about it feelings.

Mayor Eric Adams talks about public safety.
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How people perceive crime and how politicians represent it to voters has less to do with data and more to do with vibes. In October, examining allegations of rising violent crime that fueled many midterm campaigns, John Gramlich of the Pew Research Center noted that “the public often tends to believe crime is up, even when the data shows it’s down.” Data from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that there has been no increase in violent crime in the United States worldwide, and yet, in most years over the past three decades, a majority of American adults thought there was more crime nationally than the year before. although the opposite was true. Indeed, more than three-quarters of those polled by Politico/Morning Consult in October said violent crime had increased nationally, while 88 percent said it had increased or remained unchanged in their communities.

It’s not just ordinary citizens whose perceptions of crime in certain places can diverge sharply from reality. In 1990, New York had 2,262 murders and Mayor Eric Adams was a transit officer. But in May 2022 he claimed he had “never witnessed crime at this level”, although the total number of murders in 2021 was 488, just under a fifth of the 1990 level. (According to the NYPD’s own data, the crime rate is more than 80 percent lower than it was in 1990.) Adams has alternated between saying he dreads riding the subway and taking credit for the city’s steady decline in violent crime. It’s hard to know what to believe, perhaps for Adams.

News coverage that includes stories that appear to be the most emblematic of the issues that viewers and readers fear has a profound effect on how people perceive criminal justice and their own safety. In addition, popular entertainment, whether it’s the endless true crime documentary or the Lifetime movie engine or movie engine, has taken over crime as the most difficult and enduring way to engage an audience. Law and Order empire. A steady diet of crime content reinforces the sense that crime is always random and that we are the next target.

So, even if the facts tell us that New York City, or perhaps our hometown, is a safe place to live, that we are less likely to be victims of crime, and that much of our lives have changed markedly for the better, we still find ourselves living a different story.

Five Harlem youths accused of assaulting a jogger in Central Park in 1989 were eventually acquitted, but after years in prison.
Graham Morrison/Getty Images

And it is a dangerous place, something Didion makes very clear in her stories of the city. “The application of a sentimental or false narrative to the disparate and often random experience that makes up the life of a city or country means that much of what happens in that city or country will be merely illustrative. He was writing in 1991, when crime was actually rising statistically. In his essay “Sentimental Journeys” about the 1989 Central Park jogger attack that led to the wrongful conviction of five Harlem teenagers, he argues that this particular crime became a symbol of everything that was happening in New York and, by extension, the country as a whole. Women were assaulted and killed in other contexts all over the city, but the Central Park jogger case captured the world’s imagination to see it as an illustration of everything they believed was wrong with humanity.

So while an actual woman was harmed and five young people had their decades taken away by the state, politicians found room for their lofty rhetoric. Didion notes that “Gov [Mario] Cuomo could ‘declare war on crime’ by calling in 5,000 extra cops; Mayor Dinkins could up the ante by calling sixty-five hundred. It’s as if they’re the crusaders in Gotham working alongside Batman to rid the city of crime, not civil servants making decisions based on careful analysis. All these years later, history repeated itself: New York Governor Cathy Hochul announced in September that cameras would be installed in 2,700 subway cars to “focus on restoring a sense of safety.” At the same news conference, Adams said, “If New Yorkers don’t feel safe, we are failing.” Recently, as part of the increased policing announced by Adams and Hochul, subway conductors began announcing at nearly every stop that NYPD officers are on the platform “in case you need help.”

Even if you buy that there’s a causal relationship between police presence and the safety of subway riders, the new increase is cold comfort to those who ride the subway every day. For over a year now, an increased NYPD presence in and around the subways has been evident; they were the only group of people who could travel the transit system without a mask without fear of being fined. Walk through Brooklyn’s busy Atlantic Avenue station on a Thursday evening at 11 p.m., and you’ll see groups of three or four cops everywhere, talking to each other as traffic flows around them.

At the same time, there was rise up murders in and around the subway (nine this year, not two a year before the pandemic average; 3.5 million people rode the subway last Monday. one day). In January, six police officers were at the station and two nearby when 44-year-old Michelle Goh was pushed to death by a mentally ill man on the tracks.

A heightened police presence has been evident in New York for a year.
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When there was an actual shooting on the subway last spring (thankfully it wasn’t fatal), the suspect left his credit card at the crime scene, but the police couldn’t find it, so he stayed free for a day. Adams said one of the cameras at the station, as well as the before and after cameras at the stations, did not work. Eventually, the suspect was apprehended by a civilian.

What this all boils down to is that the narrative appears to be wrong, and that means the conclusion is cut. Here’s the story: Crime happens, and it’s happening now more than ever because people are saying it – even the mayor! Police deal with crime and thus we need more police and they will prevent crime. It is sentimental because it touches our feelings and these feelings seem to be true. But there are major contradictions in the story. So continuing to say this is both a way to comfort ourselves and increase the police budget.

Still, the story doesn’t answer the fundamental questions we should be asking: Why did this crime happen in the first place? What root problems does it illuminate and how can they be solved? If the issue is, as Adams suggests, there are too many mentally ill people committing crimes in the subways, are they New Yorkers who deserve protection and a sense of safety? Does history show that an increased police presence helps these people?

Or is The New Yorker only for people like me?

A sentimental narrative simplifies the reality of life’s “disparate and often random experiences” and provides “opportunities for spectacle.” The situation “provided a narrative for the city’s distress, a framework within which the actual social and economic forces undermining the city could be individualized and ultimately obscured,” Didion wrote. Cases like the Central Park runner were a way to deal with the city’s general anxiety about the deepening economic and social divide in the 1980s, and the same solutions were offered:

It gave this middle class a way to channel and express what had previously become an intolerable rage, exacerbated by the disorder of the city, with all the diseases and uncomfortable sins imaginable in a city where entire families slept. In the discarded boxes in which the new Sub-Zero refrigerators were delivered to wealthier families at twenty-six hundred each …

If the problems of the city could be seen as the deliberate disruption of a naturally cohesive and harmonious society, in which the constant “contradictions” create a perhaps dangerous but vital “energy”, then these problems could be solved and, for example, “Crime”, with the call for “better leadership”.

I think about this when people talk about how dangerous New York is, or when I hear the mayor’s solutions, the same solution over and over again. Facts and problems do not correspond to “solutions”; they are the result of a story that stands above reality. It’s not that there’s nothing to worry about. In general, we are in a hurry to overcome our fears, rather than looking for new ones. Or we change our behavior to protect ourselves from things that pose a very small threat, which gives us emotional permission to ignore the greater threat we pose to ourselves.