New York City is on the mend, as urban life slowly emerges from the trauma of the coronavirus that took lives and jobs, exposing racial disparities in health care, housing, employment and wages.
There are some signs of normalcy. Workers are gradually returning to their jobs in person. Broadway shows are poised to resume, and restrictions have been lifted on New York City’s indoor nightclubs, bars and late-night restaurant scene.
But there is one problem like no other that will keep city residents and tourists at home; a challenge that must be addressed above all others: the surge in murders, shootings, robberies, car jackings and brazen assaults.
As of June 13, there have been 194 murders in New York, up 13 percent from the same period last year and 52 percent from two years ago. While these tallies remain far below the peak levels of the 1980s and 1990s, when the city recorded more than 2,000 killings some years, the numbers are very disturbing.
And numbers alone don’t capture the mood on the street and in the subways. The mood is fraught. Fear of crime was especially palpable after 10-year-old Justin Wallace was killed by shots fired into his Queens home, and a rare shooting in Times Square injured three bystanders, including a 4-year-old girl and a tourist from Rhode Island.
Violence must be addressed by the whole of New York City’s leadership – corporate chieftains, educators, landlords, not-for-profit advocates for the poor, social justice groups and labor unions – together with the winners of the general election in November.
Everyone must step forward, because the problem and possible solutions are intertwined with important calls for police reforms, racial justice and equitable treatment of Black and brown people which cannot be ignored.
On the one hand, totally “defunding the police” is not the answer, nor, on the other, is supporting more aggressive law enforcement tactics. The solution is somewhere in the middle with smart reforms and rebuilding deep distrust of police in communities of color.
An important step to solving the current spasm of violence is to rebuild trust in police to do their jobs equitably. Nearly half of Black Americans have very little or no confidence that police in their community treat people with different skin colors the same, according to a PBS NewsHour-NPR-Maris poll just a year ago.
New state reforms have been enacted over the past year to begin to curb police abuses, and the New York City Council is considering still more. It remains to be seen how effective they will be.
It is also time to mount another public pressure campaign on gun manufacturers. The newly elected mayor, like former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, could rally New York City by becoming a national spokesperson for gun reform as well as humane police tactics. And New York City is not alone. Shootings are on the rise in other big cities across the country.
We applaud a bill introduced by State Senator Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) and Assembly Member Patricia Fahy (D-Albany) that was passed by the State Legislature earlier this month. This key legislation would make it easier to bring civil lawsuits in state court against gun manufacturers and firearms dealers who make or sell guns illegally or inappropriately. By classifying such sales as a nuisance, it would sidestep existing federal laws that now grant expansive immunity to these arms makers and dealers. This is a creative approach other states should emulate. Gov. Andrew Cuomo should sign this bill.
The legislation is intended to hold dealers and manufacturers accountable for the smuggling of illegal weapons into the state. According to the New York State Attorney General’s office, handguns originally purchased outside of New York, often from neighboring states with weak gun laws, have accounted for a large percentage of the guns recovered from crime scenes.
Lastly, we must do more to address the deep sense of helplessness felt in neighborhoods across the city, particularly in majority Black and brown communities where households lost loved ones to the coronavirus at unbelievable rates and experienced job loss, unemployment and poverty. Recent gun violence may be partly symptomatic of the negative social, economic, and mental health effects of New York City’s horrible pandemic crisis.
New York City should immediately expand existing programs, and create new ones, that specifically target teenagers and young adults most likely to have been disengaged over the past 18 months from work, remote schooling, or skills training. The city’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) is a perfect place to start; it’s time to make it a universal, school-connected program ensuring that our education systems does a better job of connecting school and employment.
The whole of our city must work together to re-engage our young people with outreach, jobs, skills training and other support to restore their sense of hope for a meaningful future. That approach will protect and accelerate New York City’s social and economic recovery.
The last thing we need is a return to the standard response: cracking down harder with more aggressive policing tactics that will only result in more deaths.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.