NEW YORK — Stray bullets in Times Square and widespread violence in the city are evoking New York’s bleakest days, forcing leaders to fine-tune recent changes to policing and rethink revolving-door policies that send prisoners back to the ZIP codes where they committed crimes.
The debate is playing out amid a mayoral race that could pit a retired police captain against a GOP nominee who’s been a public safety advocate for decades.
The New York Police Benevolent Association and other lobbies say anti-police rhetoric is driving cops and detectives to quit or seek early retirement, weakening their ability to fight the crime wave. But a reversal of New York bail reforms tops their wish list.
They say the bail reforms, enacted at the state level in January 2020 to help defendants who cannot afford release pending trial, are handcuffing judges who want to keep dangerous suspects locked up.
“No one is being held in jail and there’s a tremendous amount of guns on the street,” said Paul DiGiacomo, president of the New York City Detectives’ Endowment Association. “They’ve enacted laws and now they’re not man enough to change them back [to] the way they should be. They made a mistake.”
Brooklyn resident Carmen Lane said she thinks the courts need to get tough again so dangerous people aren’t released onto the streets.
“I think the courts should go back to being the strict people they’re supposed to be. There are too many people dying on the streets,” Ms. Lane told The Washington Times while strolling along Seventh Avenue in Chelsea on a recent weekday.
She said too many felons are being let out on technicalities, citing a convict who was released three times and ended up killing his mother.
“Hold them accountable,” she said.
There have been 826 shooting victims in 718 shooting incidents in New York City since the start of the year, a 36% rise in victims over the same time last year, according to NYPD statistics. Burglary is down 24%, making it a bit of an anomaly, but grand larceny of automobiles is up 25%.
The statistics aren’t as bad as the dark days that spanned the 1970s to 1990s. For example, the 212 murders to date are worse than the 189 recorded in the same period last year, but nowhere near the pace that led to 2,260 murders in 1990 or the nearly 650 in 2001.
Still, police and residents say conditions are deteriorating.
“We haven’t seen this many shootings since the early 2000s,” said Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD police sergeant and adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “There’s no more deterrence, the bad guys aren’t afraid of the police anymore, everyone gets bailed out, it’s a revolving door system. We have more rules against the police than they do against criminals.”
He said policies during the pandemic have contributed significantly to the problems.
“They released a massive amount of prisoners during COVID with no chance of getting a job, zero chance of going to school. What did they think was going to happen? Nobody wants to address that,” Mr. Giacalone said.
Beyond bail reform, police advocates say a law requiring prosecutors to turn over courtroom evidence, or discovery, in a speedy manner has made it easier for defendants to intimidate witnesses.
They also slammed the city’s “diaphragm law,” which banned police from applying force on a suspect’s torso while making an arrest. They said the ban is too restrictive in a rough-and-tumble business. A judge in Manhattan struck down the law as “unconstitutionally vague,” forcing the city to examine its options.
“Policing isn’t always pretty,” Mr. DiGiacomo said. “You need a combination of community policing and good old-fashioned policing. There are bad people out there.”
Fear of brazen criminality came into focus when 21-year-old bystander Samuel Poulin was shot in the back in New York City’s Times Square during a daytime spat on June 27. The victim, a U.S. Marine and recent graduate of The Citadel military college in South Carolina, was taken to the hospital in stable condition.
The shooting was a setback for New York’s efforts to revive the city’s tourist hot spot ahead of a bigger fall comeback for Broadway. It also came one night after legend Bruce Springsteen got things rolling by reviving his one-man show at the St. James Theater, the first formal show on the Broadway corridor in over 400 days.
Another daytime shooting in Times Square on May 8 injured three bystanders, including a 4-year-old girl.
“That tells me there is no fear of the police,” Mr. Giacolone said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, promised to “flood the zone” with uniformed and plainclothes police after the second shooting. Groups of officers could be seen in front of storefronts beneath the mammoth TV screens in Father Duffy Square where crowds milled around, took selfies or baked in the summer heat like a normal weekday.
GOP mayoral nominee Curtis Sliwa, pounding the pavement in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen last week, told a potential voter you “can’t handcuff the police” as crime crests around New York.
“If you notice they are reactive, they are not proactive. Communities realize, you’ve got to have police,” Mr. Sliwa told a woman who called herself progressive and said she was worried about deteriorating conditions in Chelsea and Washington Square.
The founder of the Guardian Angels safety-patrol group, Mr. Sliwa is trying to persuade voters who see crime as the No. 1 issue after Eric Adams, a retired police captain, earned front-runner status on the Democratic side by focusing on the issue.
Mr. Adams, who stands the best chance of emerging from the Democratic primary and succeeding Mr. de Blasio, is trying to balance support for police with progressive demands for reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer last year.
On the bail issue, Mr. Adams told MSNBC that while some suspects awaiting trial are needlessly detained, there are “too many people are being released that are dangerous.”
He opposes police chokeholds generally but said the city’s diaphragm law didn’t take into account certain scenarios, such as an officer wrestling with a suspect to protect civilians.
On reform, he’s looking to appoint the first female police commissioner and add “Black and Brown” officers to improve diversity. He also wants to publicize the list of cops being monitored for bad behavior while giving community boards a chance to approve or veto precinct commanders.
Claudia Goncalves, a longtime Manhattan resident, said she backed Mr. Adams in the election and appreciates his pursuit of a “well-rounded” approach to public safety.
“We don’t need people who are in prison for smoking a joint. But there are certain levels to crime, right?” she said.
She said New York is on the post-pandemic mend, but there are occasional reminders of bleak days that haunted the city when she arrived from Brazil in 1977.
“You do see a higher incidence [of crime] and it is frightening in that sense. But hopefully, with the elections, maybe things will turn a little bit,” Ms. Goncalves said. “The city goes through phases.”
Mr. Sliwa said Mr. Adams is too hung up on “satisfying both sides” in the campaign, citing his Democratic rival’s support for eliminating qualified immunity that protects cops against lawsuits.
“They’re not going to be proactive as long as they know every time they physically make a move they can be sued,” Mr. Sliwa said.
Mr. Adams wants to bring back plainclothes anti-crime units that formerly blanketed the city and transform them into anti-gun units. Mr. Sliwa wants to see the units return, too, although the GOP nominee wants to bring them back quickly instead of revamping them.
“The other program that they gutted that nobody talks about — to me, it’s just as important — is the police homeless outreach team,” Mr. Sliwa said. “These are trained professional police officers who know how to deal with emotionally disturbed and the homeless.”
Mr. DiGiacomo said the unit was performing well, but politicians didn’t want the police involved in dealing with the homeless. The city shifted the work to social services agencies in mid-2020 amid the sometimes bitter debate around fair policing that’s unfolding in urban centers and Washington.
“I’m hoping that Eric Adams, with his police experience, will have the sense to get this back on track,” he said. “Whoever comes in only has four to six months to get this straightened out, or it’s going to get worse, and people are going to die.”