New York NYPD Police car with sirens at day on street. Credit: GummyBone

Felipe! I’m really grateful for all you do and humoring me, the publisher of Epicenter, asking basic questions and not even pretending it’s for a friend. 

I’ve been struck by the conversation around crime in New York City lately and whether it’s safe for us to ride the subways, walk around at night, or even just go about our lives. I have two daughters and confess that it feels like we are plotting our movements and transit routes way more than we used to. But I also confess that we’ve been cautious before, especially when the anti-immigrant sentiment during the Trump years spooked us into laying low. Thanks for talking this through with me. (Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Mitra: Is New York City less safe than 4 or 5 years ago? 

Felipe: The question of crime is always interesting because a crime rate in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean that much unless you kind of look at it comparatively. There are ways to look at this comparatively. There are different approaches you can take. You can look at New York City compared to itself, New York City compared to the country, New York City compared to general trends. You can arrive at sort of different answers even if the data is relatively the same. 

Let’s start with how New York City compares to other parts of the country. This is just something I always like to emphasize: We have among the lowest major crime rates of any large U.S. city. I was looking at some data: gun homicides, for example, are much, much higher in suburban and rural areas around the country than they are in New York. Sometimes we forget that because there’s kind of a magnification effect where if somebody gets shot on your block (and there have been a few shootings on my block in the last several years), it feels like it hits very close to home. Nonetheless, if you look at it in terms of a function of density and how many people live in the city and how frequent it actually is statistically for violent crime to occur, it’s relatively rare. 

To go back to your question of New York City compared to itself: New York City’s crime rates had been on a precipitous decline starting roughly in the late 90s, early 2000s. That decline continued essentially unabated until the pandemic. Then the pandemic had all kinds of socio-political and economic effects. There was an uptick that happened during that latter half of 2020. 

One thing that I always emphasize is that if something jumps from 1 to 2, you can say that it jumped 100%. If something jumped from 10 to 15, it only jumped 50%. Nonetheless, the second number remains higher. And so, the crime rate, especially what we call kind of index crimes (murder or robbery, assault, rape) ticked up in a way that was marked during the pandemic and kind of in 2021 and a little bit in 2022. But it hasn’t actually even approached the levels that it was at, not just in kind of the bad old days of the ‘80s and the ‘90s, but even the mid-2000s, and the earlier part of the century. 

There are a few complicating factors. One of them is that index crimes, for example grand theft auto, have spiked up a lot in part because there are these kinds of weird particularities around certain makes of car that are very easy to steal. And so there’s a little bit of fuzziness in the data that can be distracting. 

Big picture, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that New York City is experiencing a big resurgence of crime. 

Mitra: I want to talk about the subways. This is an area where I hear a mix of anecdotes and also the increase of homelessness on the subways feels undeniable. I will share an incident: a few weeks ago, we were walking towards the subway and we saw one guy bash another guy’s head into a glass storefront right next to the entry to the subway. We happened to be across from a police precinct. I didn’t know what to do because I had my daughter and her friend, and they’re younger. So I was like, do I help? No, let’s get the kids out of here. So we cross the street, go down into the subway and we see six cops all lined up. We told them there’s something going on upstairs. 

Felipe: When we talk about security as a sort of theater, which I think you’re alluding to, I think the prime example was the deployment of the National Guard in subways. I don’t think it made any difference in terms of the functional rate of crime. I wrote about this a while ago: the odds of you getting assaulted on the subway, if you just look at it from a pure statistical standpoint, are about the same as getting hit by lightning. It’s incredibly rare, given the volume of people who ride the subway. 

There are a few factors here that I want to address piecemeal. 

  • Ridership is up to basically pre-pandemic levels. That is a good thing, the subways need ridership. It’s the lifeblood of the city. 
  • Obviously, once you get everyone back on the trains, you have a lot more people and a lot more potential for friction. To put it diplomatically, people’s ability to navigate social interactions that might be tense or distressing has seemed to suffer since the pandemic. You see this in all sorts of sectors like airplanes and customer service, where people are just more prone to exploding. 
  • Then there are other issues folded into the issue of crime, but aren’t really crime, like homelessness. The shelter system is overburdened right now. There’s just a stretching of resources and rents have continued to go up. One analysis showed that a full third of New Yorkers are now severely rent burdened, meaning that they’re spending about a half of their income on rent. And so then people get pushed out onto the streets. Seeing people who are homeless often makes commuters uneasy, even if there’s no quote unquote crime happening. 

The city has a directive to shelter people, but people often don’t like to go into the shelters. Then where do you go? You go into the subways.  

Also there’s drug use. We had another rise in overdose deaths in the last year, which is very unfortunate. And the opioid epidemic in particular is kind of ravaging the state right now. We have actually some very concerning numbers on that front. 

People are suffering from a confluence of events that often feed into each other. They might be struggling with mental health issues. They might be struggling with drug abuse issues. 

Mitra: You’ve written about migrants being scapegoated by this administration. I’m wondering if there’s any correlation with crime and perception of it. 

Felipe: These issues have been interlinked in the public imagination, including by the mayor himself. 

There was a Newsweek poll of about a thousand New York City voters that found 70% of people blamed migrants for the quote unquote current crime rate. Most studies though have shown that immigrants tend to commit crimes of all types, violent and nonviolent, at generally lower rates than the native born. 

In New York, the immigration status of people who are arrested for crimes is not reported. And there’s a specific reason for that. That’s part of our New York City sanctuary provisions. We don’t want to be recording the immigration status of people who are arrested. 

There’s some concern on the horizon currently because of the city’s recent agreement with the Legal Aid Society to cap shelter stays for adult migrants at 30 days, or 60 if they’re under 23. Thousands and thousands of migrants just aren’t going to be able to access shelter anymore. Obviously, if people get desperate enough, there’s a chance that criminal activity will occur, shoplifting from the supermarket or something. There’s nothing to me that signals people will be engaging in violent crime. 

Mitra: I want to end with a personal question for you. When you see this fragility you are alluding to, when people explode on the subway or on the streets, do you have a standard reaction? Do you have any advice on what we should do when we see this? 

Felipe: I would say first and foremost, don’t put yourself at personal risk, right. If somebody is having violent outbursts or something, it’s not on you. It’s not your job to intervene in that kind of a scenario. 

But if they seem like they need a little bit of help, sometimes just talking to people can make them feel seen. A lot of problems arise when people just feel like they’re invisible or that no one’s understanding what they’re going through. Talking to people goes a long way.  

There are teams that go around the subway system looking for people to provide services to. If you get the police involved, and sometimes that is necessary, I would stick around. It’s always your right to observe and film the police. This has been ruled on by the courts: you are allowed to film police activity. Making sure that things go smoothly is a good thing, because sometimes the de-escalation training doesn’t quite kick in. We saw in the Win Rozario case, the absolute worst-case scenario for when there’s a mental health issue and the police are too quick to resort to violence.

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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1 Comment

  1. We do live in one of the safest cities in the world. I have to remind my out of town friends that everything is fine.

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