… “Crime is constantly fluctuating,” said Dr. Jeffrey Butts, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in a recent phone interview. “The numbers go up and they go down,” he said, and looking at short-term changes doesn’t reflect meaningful trends. “You never understand the history of something until you can look at it with a little bit of distance.”
A sudden uptick in numbers – such as the NYPD’s week-to-week, month-to-month, and even year-to-year reports – can cause anxiety. So can highly-publicized crimes like the subway killing of UWSer Michelle Go or the recent shooting of a Danish tourist at West End Avenue and 103rd Street. In the search for causes, some have focused blame on bail reform and progressive prosecutors, a theory that Butts notes has been challenged by research such as a March report by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, which concluded that “There is no clear connection between recent crime increases and the [New York State] bail reform law enacted in 2019.”
But this is not to say that fluctuations don’t matter. It’s just that you have to watch them over time before you can draw conclusions about which way crime may be trending. According to Butts, there isn’t enough perspective yet to understand the upticks of recent years, especially because they “include a major public health social disruption of everything we know about living life. You have to look at it in the long-term. We really won’t know what the 2015 to 2022 period is for a while.”
So what role did the Covid disruption play in all of this? One of the effects was that when everything shut down, the result was a temporary drop in crime rates (police data for 2020 show that, compared to 2019, robbery, assault, grand larceny and petit larceny fell, while burglary and auto theft went up). But when Covid restrictions eased, the numbers picked back up, leaving an impression of rising crime; in 2021, rates ticked up for robbery, assault, grand larceny, and auto theft. And this year, as the city opened up even more from the days of stringent Covid rules, crime rates climbed even higher for robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and petit larceny.
“Probably the 20th and the 24th precincts were more affected by lockdowns,” said Butts, referring to the many Upper West Siders who could work from home. “So the fact that it’s now up over the last partial year is not a shock at all, because it was so low during the depth of the lockdown.”
And at present, looking at the police data, it’s not possible to say if this recent, somewhat modest, uptick in crime is a fluctuation that might trend downward over the next few years, or possibly level off – or in fact turn out to be the beginning of a steady rise in crime. What does appear clear is that these rising numbers should not be interpreted as proof of a new crime wave washing over the Upper West Side. It’s simply too soon to say – just as no one could say in 1990 that crime rates were about to start a long, dramatic plunge.
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