CRIME FIGHTINGPublic Safety Experts Warn: NYC’s Crime-Fighting Strategy Could Backfire

By Chip Brownlee

Published 24 June 2022

As city leaders double down on policing amid a spike in shootings, a new idea is gaining hold among experts: could less policing actually reduce gun violence?

James Essig, the chief of detectives for the New York Police Department, stepped up to the podium to explain how officers had solved a crime. Less than a week before, on 9 January 2022, just after midnight, 19-year-old Kristal Bayron Nieves had been shot to death in a botched robbery at an East Harlem Burger King where she had just gotten a job.

The security camera recorded a man wearing a ski mask. It didn’t show his face, but it did offer another crucial clue: a pair of white earbuds dangling from his pocket.

Using further surveillance footage from the street and the transit system, detectives tracked and identified a man in different clothes but with a similar gait, height, and build — and white earbuds hanging down his side. He was arrested in Brooklyn, and charged with murder.

Despite the high-profile fanfare and police self-congratulation, however, the case was notable mainly for being an exception. The majority of shootings in New York City go unsolved, leaving families without closure and communities without answers. Only 54 percent of homicides resulted in an arrest in 2021, according to analysis by Vital City, a public-safety-focused journal at Columbia Law School. For nonfatal shootings, the rate in New York City is even lower: only 35 percent last year. 

In law enforcement, that number is known as the clearance rate — and it’s gone down. Back in 2017, the NYPD cleared 76 percent of murders and 50 percent of nonfatal shootings. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shootings surged across the country, and clearance rates plummeted. 

Some public safety and law enforcement experts attribute that decline in part to a lack of trust in the criminal justice system, particularly among Black communities, following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.

But as the new “tough on crime” mayor, Eric Adams, responds to the crisis by launching a much-touted crackdown, pouring more money into the police, and creating special new units arresting people for low-level offenses, a new idea is gaining hold among those experts: Could the strategy of simply making more arrests backfire — and make crime worse?

Or, put another way, could fewer arrests reduce crime?

Law enforcement’s ability to solve a crime, especially a shooting, is bound up with the relationship between a community and those who police it. Often, people with knowledge of a serious violent crime choose not to come forward.