Is New York’s Wave of Gun Violence Receding? Experts See Reason for Hope.
Dozens of people were gathered outside on a recent Sunday night, listening to music and partying in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of …
Dozens of people were gathered outside on a recent Sunday night, listening to music and partying in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, when two men walked up and opened fire, wounding eight. Ten minutes later, three teenagers were shot nearby in Cypress Hills. And the same night, three men in their 20s were wounded by gunfire in Springfield Gardens, Queens.
The mid-August night was just the latest grim evidence of a yearlong wave of gun violence that has confronted the city. But amid the drumbeat of reports of shootings, experts who study the issue say that recent gun violence data has shown a downward trend.
This June and July saw considerably fewer shootings than those months in 2020, experts note, and the numbers have not reached the stark levels many feared they might.
Experts caution against drawing conclusions from limited data and note that the recent trends could still change. Shootings also remain significantly up from prepandemic levels. But after the toll of the past year, the preliminary numbers have offered reason for optimism.
“In April and May, all indications were that where we were headed was even worse than most of last year,” said Marcos Gonzalez Soler, who heads the mayor’s office of criminal justice. “I think that is a very different universe from where we are now.”
A less violent summer
As New Yorkers emerged last summer following months of isolation during the pandemic’s peak, the city began to experience the worst gun violence it had seen in decades.
Over June and July 2020, New York saw 448 shooting incidents, a Police Department statistic that tracks distinct instances in which one or more people are shot, rather than total victims. It was a spike in shootings that was driven at least in part, many experts believe, by the social and economic disorder that accompanied the pandemic.
This summer, as the city reopened, the number of shooting incidents in June and July dropped to 323. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, have both touted the lower summer monthly totals as a positive sign, and have pointed to the increase in gun arrests between this year and last. (The arrests dropped dramatically between 2019 and 2020.)
Mr. Gonzalez Soler offered a broader reasoning, pointing to the city’s range of efforts to tackle the issue over the summer.
Experts caution that it can take years to learn why crime statistics change, and warn against comparing crime figures in one year with the previous year — and that is particularly true during the pandemic’s upheaval and frequent waves of change. But many have taken note of the swing.
Jeffrey Butts, the director of the research and evaluation center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has been conducting analyses of quarterly shooting totals, comparing three-month periods between 2020 and 2021. The spike has appeared to be tapering off, even if gradually, across the past several times he has run the numbers, he said.
Mr. Gonzalez Soler said that he was “always skeptical” looking at the short-term trends in general, but “optimistic about the direction” the city has appeared to be moving in.
Even as concerns remain, he noted several positive signs: New York saw homicides, for example, hover around a total similar to prepandemic levels over the past two months with 67 in 2021 — more in line with 2019 (64) than 2020 (100).
Shootings remain high
While experts say the current statistical trends are encouraging, shootings are still significantly up from 2019, when about 177 shootings were recorded in June and July.
And regardless of the next few months, 2021 will end having taken a steep toll compared with the time before the pandemic, when fewer than 1,000 people were shot by year’s end. By Aug. 15, police statistics show more than 1,160 people had been shot in New York City this year.
That is roughly double the year-to-date numbers from 2017 to 2019, when shootings were historically low.
Experts say it was always unlikely that the spike would vanish quickly: Individual shootings can fuel cycles of retaliation that lead to further gun violence and take time to break.
Christopher Herrmann, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who was once an analyst for the Police Department, said that if shootings continue to remain significantly up from prepandemic levels into spring and summer 2022, “I think we’ve got to start asking ourselves, ‘What are we going to do now?’”
The shootings spike came after a period during which homicides in the city dropped to their lowest levels in more than six decades.
The overall crime index — which tracks seven major crimes including murder, felony assault, rape and car theft — has also remained at its lowest level in decades because of declines in reports of burglary and robbery.
Even as gun violence has risen, it remains far below the city’s “bad old days” and peak levels of the 1980s and ’90s. Then, the city often reported annual homicide totals in the high 1,000s or low 2,000s. Last year’s end-of-year total was around 450; 2021 is on pace to finish near or below that number.
Neighborhood trends differ
Even as public safety becomes a concern for New Yorkers across the city, neighborhoods that saw higher levels of gun violence before the pandemic have borne the brunt of the spike.
“Shootings don’t impact most New Yorkers,” said Mr. Herrmann. “We’re talking about a small percent of a small percent of people that really experience the gun violence problem.”
And as shootings appear to decline from their peaks last year, some areas, such as Brooklyn, have shown stronger signs of improvement than others.
“The Brooklyn recovery seems more striking than other boroughs,” Dr. Butts said. “The Brooklyn spike is horrendous when you look at it over time. But the most recent quarter, the data point is back to where it’s been bouncing around for the past 15 years.”
Dr. Butts said that he planned to study the dynamics across neighborhoods that may have influenced the gaps, including the effect of the city’s violence prevention programs and less obvious differences that may play a role.
A.T. Mitchell, the founder of Man Up! Inc., an anti-violence organization in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, said he has seen the outlook in the area he focuses on improve in recent months.
“Hopefully by the end of this year, we’ll all be able to exhale a little bit,” Mr. Mitchell said.
The recent progress has been less dramatic in parts of Upper Manhattan, and even more muted across the Bronx.
But the Bronx is the city’s poorest borough, and was the hardest hit economically by the pandemic. It also saw the highest hospitalization and death rates as the virus struck.
Those disparities are critical to understanding the distinctions between boroughs, said David Caba, the program director for Bronx Rises Against Gun Violence, which operates in several areas like Wakefield and University Heights.
Much is still unknown
A clear view of where New York’s new baseline gun violence level may fall will not come anytime soon, experts say — particularly as the Delta variant fuels a rise in coronavirus cases and reopening efforts pause.
“I think Delta’s going to interrupt any sort of simple narrative,” said John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University.
“The pandemic’s already rebounding again,” he continued. “I think we have to wait until we really know we’re beyond the rebound before looking at what post-pandemic will look like.”
It’s also too early to pin down the root causes for the rise itself.
Many experts who study gun violence and those who work in neighborhood groups on the issue believe the pandemic and its social and economic toll played a critical role.
But a variety of other factors may be part of the puzzle, including the rise in the volume of guns in New York and elsewhere during the pandemic and the breakdown of relations between communities and the police over the past year.
And among the U.S. cities, large and small, that have seen spikes in gun violence during the pandemic, the causes are unlikely to be identical. For New York’s part, homicide rates remain below those of many smaller major cities including Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. (That was also the case before the pandemic).