issue 178 - December 1987
Crime is a fact of city life. But in New York it's much
more than that. New Yorkers live in constant fear of
being mugged or worse. Martin Mittelstaedt argues
that this pervasive paranoia both masks the real
causes of crime and derails potential solutions.
It was a typical New York murder. Peter Louzader, a 47-year-old building manager, was crossing a busy downtown street when he was grazed by a van.
Tempers flared and angry words were exchanged. The van driver pulled a knife, stabbed Mr. Louzader in the neck and fled. It was 11 o'clock in the morning. It could as easily happen on the subway: recently two passengers bumped into one another setting off an altercation that left one man shot in the head and another running down the subway tracks to escape.
You don't even have to be involved. Nineteen-year old Mertho Hilarie was simply watching a dispute between two neighbors in Brooklyn late one August night. A gun was pulled. In a few moments of horrifying violence Ms Hilarie, seven months pregnant, was shot in the crossfire. After the shooting, the gunman fled. Ms Hilarie was pronounced dead at a local hospital three hours later. News reports on the incident did not mention what triggered the dispute.
Thirty-one people are murdered in New York on a typical week, a death toll that rivals fatalities in most other countries only when there are great calamities, such as civil war or natural disasters. There were 1,598 murders in 1986, a tally well beyond anything recorded in Europe or in most Third World countries.
The soaring crime rate has produced a culture of fear and paranoia in New York that is quite unlike most major cities outside the US. Fear of crime has shaped life in New York, dictating where people live and whether they feel safe enough to walk to the corner store. New York's preoccupation with personal security has created a whole new industry catering to citizens fearful of the city's huge criminal underclass. The industry offers everything from security guards to razor wire which can be spread judiciously around vulnerable locations on apartment or office buildings to deter intruders.
Rich New Yorkers live in buildings with around-the-clock guards and barred windows - an expensive form of house arrest. Everyone who visits or lives in the city is affected by the grim reality of crime. Tourists are cautioned to avoid parks after dark and to lock car doors when travelling in dangerous areas. Even UN diplomats are warned about crime. An official publication titled New York, Your Host lists nine points to help newcomers from becoming unwitting victims.
I felt this crime paranoia my first day in New York after I'd accidentally locked myself out of my apartment building. I'd just arrived from Toronto to begin a reporting assignment and thought getting back inside would be easy.
But as I waited on the steps, new neighbors, who had not seen me before, slammed the self-locking door in my face or physically blocked me from entering. They were too afraid to allow me into the building. Protests that I actually lived there were brushed aside.
My second experience two weeks later was more direct. I'd ordered a word processor and the delivery truck was hijacked several blocks from my office. Thieves, several armed with crowbars ambushed the locked truck in broad daylight on a crowded street when the driver left briefly to make another delivery.
Since then I've witnessed shoplifters chased onto streets and tackled by store workers. I've been offered stolen electronic equipment and I'm accosted almost daily by the legions of drug pushers who inhabit Manhattan.
This non-stop crime wave has produced some 'good ol' New York ingenuity to frustrate wrongdoers. On the subways, for example, there are more than 1,000 robberies a month, even though hundreds of uniformed and plain-clothed police officers patrol the system. Many of the muggings occur on subway platforms, so the authorities have created special areas for people to gather while waiting for trains.
These 'off hours waiting areas' are marked in yellow paint, and are placed in view of fare booths, so the ticket vendors can quickly call police in the event of a crime. The zones are based on the theory that strength in numbers will prevent travellers from being mugged, much like musk oxen in the Canadian Arctic form circles, their horns facing outward, when they hear wolves howling. Fearful commuters cluster in the zones, lit by bright fluorescent lights, under the watchful eyes of transit staff.
The main method used to deter crime is the usual one - the threat of prison. In the US as a whole, three out of every 100 adult males were either incarcerated or under some form of correctional supervision at the end of 1985. Nearly three million men and women are in prison or on probation, a disproportionate number of them poor black and Hispanic.
But in New York, this way of coping with crime has reached a serious limit. Prisons are seriously overcrowded. To relieve the congestion the city has resorted to reconditioning idle commuter ferries and pressing them into service as floating jails. The city has also agreed to lease a former British troop barge from the Falkland Islands debacle to create yet another prison.
Although the jails are brimming, crime statistics have not budged. There were 500,000 felonies (robberies, assaults, rapes and murders) reported to New York City police last year, a figure that hasn't changed appreciably since 1983. Many criminal activities are not reported, so it is likely the real tally is substantially higher. Still, official numbers suggest a typical New Yorker is likely to be a victim of serious crime about five times in a lifetime.
Police in some wealthy suburbs are using more powerful and sophisticated weapons in a bid to stop crime - although so far New York City police have resisted this trend.
Both police and citizens are understandably jumpy. In fact the culture of crime has exacerbated tensions between police and citizens so much that 5000 complaints about arbitrary, often brutal police conduct were sent to the Police Review Board in 1986.
Another crime fighting method has been military-style police assaults on neighborhoods known as centres of drug dealing. In one recent case, about 200 heavily armed police officers sealed off a Manhattan street and searched everyone they could find. A helicopter clattered overhead to track anyone trying to escape through back alleys. Cynical residents claimed that within a day or two after the raid they expected the drug dealers to return.
Fear of crime has also become a factor in much of the racial tension gripping the city - for many white New Yorkers crime has a black face. It doesn't matter that Blacks are statistically more likely to be crime victims than whites. In fact two recent highly publicized crimes were both carried out by whites. A gang of toughs set on fire a homeless couple in a park and a gunman sprayed a Brooklyn subway train with a high-powered rifle.
The recent case of subway rider Bernie Goetz acquitted for shooting four black youths he feared were going to rob him demonstrates graphically the power of racial fears. The teenagers, one of whom was paralyzed in the shooting, said they were begging. Goetz became something of a local hero and was even encouraged to run for mayor.
But who really faced each other across the subway car that fateful day? In some ways Goetz and the young black men were symbols of America's social divisions. There was Bernie Goetz - white, middle-class, with a decent job and the chance for social advancement. And there were the youths - dirt-poor, semi-literate, with a bleak future of dead-end jobs, gang violence, drug addiction, prison or the military. One social type has excluded the other from the opportunity for a reasonable life; the other has responded by preying on the weak and the vulnerable.
The racial tension typified by the Goetz case is so bad that in some shops entry is controlled by buzzers. Young black males are simply not admitted by nervous shopkeepers.
The effect of all this is to strip New York of its civility. Common decency has been hijacked and trust between ordinary people undermined. The causes and consequences of crime have become so confused that the underlying issue of the polarization of power and opportunity in New York is lost in the mists of fear.
Martin Mittelstaedt is a Canadian journalist based in New York City.