It was a year like no other. And much of what the city was like through 2020 can be distilled from a significant spikes in murders and shootings.
The year began with increases in robberies, burglaries and shootings, surges that Commissioner Dermot Shea, Mayor de Blasio and others blamed on bail reforms that essentially went into effect toward the close of 2019.
Before long, city residents were reading about—and, in some neighborhoods, experiencing first-hand—soaring numbers of homicides.
The 462 homicides citywide represented a 45-percent increase over 2019’s 319 murders.
The killings, while representing a fraction of those during the late 1980s and early 1990s, were still the most in a generation. And the bullets didn’t discriminate. Among the dead: 1-year-old Davell Gardner Jr., hit by a stray round in a Bedford-Stuyvesant park in July; Sue Doe, a 52-year-old churchgoing Staten Island mother of two, killed in November by a spray of bullets, none intended for her; and Kleimer Mendez, 16, and Antonio Villa, 18, two friends shot in the head while they played basketball in Cypress Hills on July 26, an especially bloody Sunday during an especially violent summer.
The violence—the year's 1,531 shootings far and away eclipsed 2019's 777 such incidents—soared amid a pandemic that through the end of the year had killed more than 25,000 New Yorkers. It also unspooled against a background of massive protests against police misconduct that unraveled into looting and near-riots and then into forceful calls to curtail the NYPD’s resources.
"The confluence of COVID into the protests into all of the debate about defunding the police—I can't imagine a darker period,” Commissioner Shea told reporters Dec. 29.
That confluence also for a few days threatened Federal action following the Justice Department’s branding of the city as an “anarchist jurisdiction.” Citing the increases in shootings and killings, funding cuts to the NYPD and the reluctance of District Attorneys to prosecute people arrested during the protests, the DOJ in mid-September threatened a loss of Federal funds, and hinted at deploying Federal law enforcement personnel.
And although the NYPD at the height of the pandemic had nearly 20 percent of uniformed members laid up by the virus and also saw a record number of retirements as police classes were delayed by months, Detectives still cleared 54 percent of last year’s homicides, according to the department.
While gun arrests dipped through the first part of the year, they surged during the last quarter, with the 4,253 recorded last year representing a 29-percent increase over 2019’s figure.
Despite the increases in violent crimes, the NYPD said incident data for 2020 reflected “a historic low” in so-called index crimes overall. While homicides, burglaries, by 42 percent, and car thefts, by 67 percent, all increased, incidences of rapes, robberies, felony assaults and grand larcenies decreased such that there were 681 fewer crime victims last year than in 2019.
But while rapes and sexual assaults are typically under-reported at any time, the 1,428 incidents, 19 percent fewer than those recorded in 2019, very likely represent even a steeper decline in reported incidents, since victims had fewer occasions to communicate them during the height of the pandemic, when residents were spending less time outdoors.
Conversely, while police unions and some elected officials blamed the spikes in killings and shootings on criminal-justice and police reforms enacted last year in the city and state, crime researchers have said that while several factors were in play, data indicated that the virus and associated factors were most to blame for the increases in violence.
For instance, a September report issued by the Council on Criminal Justice found “statistically significantly changes” in the rates of violent and other crimes (including notable decreases in drug offenses and residential burglaries). Its authors also suggested that “[s]ubduing the COVID-19 epidemic also remains a necessary condition for reducing violence.”
The report’s authors, Richard Rosenfeld, a Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Ernesto Lopez Jr., a graduate research assistant at the university, looked at crime rates and trends in 27 major U.S. cities and found that homicides increased 53 percent between June and August, during the height of the violence, over the same three months in 2019.
Murders in New York City during that period increased 46 percent, below the rate of those other cities, according to NYPD data.
“What New York City and our nation experienced in 2020 will resonate for a long, long time,” Commissioner Shea said in a statement accompanying the crime statistics. “The NYPD recognizes this as a time for asking and answering difficult questions, for reflection and action and for encouraging and serving New Yorkers. This will determine the way forward for all of us.”
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