The stories were horrible.
A woman tied up and fatally shot in her own apartment. Her neighbor was killed in his apartment two days later in the same way. In another tragic episode, a young teenager was killed in a horrendous machete attack in the Bronx that made national headlines. The New York Post (7/30/18) reported on a violent stretch of seven hours where 16 people were shot, one fatally, in 10 separate incidents: “ Gunfire Explodes Over Seven Bloody Hours in NYC.”
There were almost 300 reported murders in New York City that year, almost one per day. There were over 20,000 reported felony assaults, about 55 per day, and more than 12,000 robberies, 35 on an average day. The year was 2018, and it was the safest year in New York City’s recorded history. In a city of over eight million residents, crime, even in the safest times, will always be a headline.
Fast forward to 2021 as the city, and nation, begin to climb out of a pandemic that saw mass economic and social fallout—to say nothing of the lives lost. A historic, once-in-a-lifetime worldwide event destabilized the lives of countless people, and also led to an undeniable rise in shootings and homicide across the country. However, right-leaning media have used the uptick in certain crime categories to weaponize a counter-narrative to social justice movements, one that argues we need more cops and law enforcement to save our cities.
The narrative isn’t a new one, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be a genuine one. Local conservative tabloids, like the Post and the New York Daily News, have for years tried to stir fear of a city overrun by crime (FAIR.org, 6/21/21). As we’ve pointed out at FAIR (6/28/18), the local tabloids were apocalyptic in their predictions for the city when stop and frisk, a dragnet policing tactic, was ruled unconstitutional in its application by the NYPD. These papers have supported controversial police tactics like “broken windows”—a crackdown on minor offenses in poor communities, no matter the costs on vulnerable populations. (“Broken Windows ‘Works,’ and if It Hurts Immigrants—‘Too Bad,’” was how FAIR summarized the Daily News‘ position—3/8/17.)
The Post, which has been sounding the alarm bells since Democrat Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, has operated much like a media outlet that wants crime to increase. It seems to have an ideological drive to frame the city the way police unions in the 1970s once did: as “Fear City” The cartoonishly predictable newspaper’s pro-police bias is well-documented.
Their fascination with squeegee workers (people that go up to cars to clean windshields for tips), for example, is in itself a master class in hyping a moral panic for a larger public policy goal. In 2014, Post headlines railed against squeegee workers making a “comeback” (the prevailing belief being they were run out of the city by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani) and “terrorizing” the city (8/7/14). In 2020, before Covid, the Post editorial board (2/18/20) was arguing that with squeegee workers “back,” “the bad old days can’t be far behind”—only to then run a story (5/31/21) declaring that the “pandemic gives way to return of NYC’s infamous squeegee men.”
Unable to decide whether squeegee workers are now “back” or had already “returned” (or perhaps never really left at all), the Post‘s reporting was never anything less than a naked attempt to signal a shadowy side of Gotham that is perpetually lurking around the figurative corner. With certain categories of city crime increasing from the previous year, media fearmongering has hit the ground running.
In the city, tabloid and television media have tried to explain crime increases—often described as “crime waves”—primarily in two ways. One, as a result of police reforms, notably New York state’s passage of legislation aimed to modestly reduce the use of cash bail (reforms that were watered down amid right-wing scare tactics). And secondly, to a “defunding” of police, as some municipalities have reduced official police spending. Quoting controversial former police commissioner William Bratton, the Post (6/10/21) made both arguments, claiming that city and state lawmakers (who make and maintain laws to make crime, well, illegal) “went too far to aid criminals.”
Data, however, doesn’t back the assertion that bail reform has led to crime increases. The Center for Court Innovation found “no evidence to support the claim” that bail reform was behind a spike in gun violence. In a more recent publication, the New York City–based non-profit that works closely with the state’s court system (not exactly a radical anti–law enforcement outfit) also found that more people have been in pre-trial detention, despite what the mayor and police commissioner were telling the public:
Beginning in May 2020, and increasing throughout the summer as some New York City public officials made unsupported claims linking bail reform to a spike in gun violence, judges reverted to setting bail more often. Combined with the effect of the July 2020 amendments to the original legislation—which made more cases again eligible for bail—this contributed to a steady, months-long rise in the number of people in jail awaiting trial.
What about “defunding” the police? Since those three magic words were seen on protest signs of George Floyd demonstrators last year—and become the fascination of right-wing pundits (and even establishment Democrats, as I wrote about last year —Medium, 11/16/20)—some have claimed that not only have the police been defunded, but that that defunding is to blame for increases in violence.
The New Republic (5/26/21) did a rather succinct job last month of bursting that bubble, showcasing the National Fraternal Order of Police’s twitter graphic of “SKYROCKETING MURDER RATES,” which claimed elected leaders in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles “turned the keys over to the ‘Defund the Police’ mob.” The FOP, the New Republic‘s Matt Ford pointed out, actually
took care not to link the rise in homicides explicitly to actual material declines in police budgets. That’s because some cities did not actually “defund the police” in any meaningful way.
In other words, the very premise that reducing, even moderately, police spending caused a crime increase was flawed, because the asserted cause didn’t really happen in some cities.
In fact, that’s the case in New York City, a city that conservatives have breathlessly complained “defunded” the police (with help from the police commissioner: “ Dermot Shea: Defunding the Police in NYC Had a ‘Significant Impact’ on Crime Surge”—Fox News, 9/25/20). New York did reshuffle some school police spending. However, the much-hyped decrease in the police budget by $1 billion annually was found by an independent budget watchdog to be only about a third of that. Any of the so-called cuts wouldn’t figure into the policing puzzle, because increases in shootings began early last summer, before the “defunded” budget would have even been felt in the police department.
In fact, the city saw crime increases as its police department was still far and away the largest and most expensive urban police department in the history of mankind. (This, of course, begs the question as to why the police themselves aren’t blamed for the increase in violent crime, because they certainly are given the credit when there is decrease in crime.) Further undermining the supposed causal relationship between “defunding” police and increases in crime is the fact that several cities saw increases in violent crime even as they increased police spending (Chicago Tribune, 6/10/21).
National outlets pile on
While local media has been increasingly reporting about crime for more than a year, national outlets have also piled on. Fox News host Laura Ingraham (6/10/21) ranted against activists in Minneapolis recently: “Now, a year after the ruinous deadly riots that ripped apart America, we see the corrupt poisonous fruits of BLM’s work.” The show, framed as Ingraham’s analysis of “the radicals behind America’s crime wave,” also included an interview with right-wing pundit Heather MacDonald—who was promoting a crime wave six years ago, when there was no crime wave (FAIR.org, 6/10/15).
MacDonald’s visceral hatred of the Black Lives Matter movement led her to complain to Ingraham that “thanks to this phony, racist attack on law enforcement, Black lives are the ones that are lost.” MacDonald, who is frequent contributor to the Post, the Wall Street Journal and City Journal (the magazine of the right-wing Manhattan Institute), has also claimed that “No, the Cops Didn’t Murder Sean Bell” (City Journal, Winter/07) after cops murdered Sean Bell, so you have to take what she says with several mountains of salt.
Attempts to tie violent crime to the racial justice movement has been an ongoing theme for the right since Black Lives Matter entered mainstream national discourse. MacDonald’s initial attempt to do so was with the conservative fairy tale known as the “Ferguson Effect” back in 2015, when several media outlets, including the New York Times (6/4/15), opened their pages for her to argue that the “vitriol” of protesters and police critics led to cops not being “proactive” enough to stop crime.
Columbia University professor Bernard Harcourt, a critical theorist who countered the Broken Windows theory of policing and also debunked MacDonald’s “Ferguson Effect” fiction, notes the historical parallels:
The attacks on the movement to defund policing or reform bail come straight out of the conservative playbook. It’s the same script from the 1960s and the reactionary response to the civil rights movement.
Harcourt notes conservatives see easy political opportunities from high crime or increases in crime.
It’s what turned crime into a national priority with Goldwater and Nixon.
Politicization of crime
New York City—where our crime increases, notably in reported shootings and murders, still only result in a fraction of city crime levels in the early 1990s—has experienced this before. Former mayor Rudy Giuliani was elected twice on a law and order platform that seized on fear of crime and laid the groundwork for decades of mass arrests and stops of mostly Black and Latino New Yorkers.
After his election, in a sort of inverse of what is happening today, Giuliani took credit for declines in crime in the ’90s that began a year before Giuliani became mayor and were part of a nationwide crime decrease. “The same politicization of crime happened in the 1990s with broken windows policing. Each time, it’s just manipulation to score a political point,” Harcourt reminds me. That crime decrease benefited not only Giuliani and law and order Republican politics, it also gave police leaders like William Bratton, Giuliani’s commissioner, political power by defining them as saviors of the city.
However, more than a quarter century later, there is no consensus of what caused that crime decline. Similarly, the causes of this current crime increase probably won’t be clear for a long time—although the pandemic’s destabilizing effects on society are a very likely culprit—so the voices that claim to immediately know the causes are saying so based on a predetermined agenda. “If there are national trends in crime and strong variations in policing across jurisdictions,” Harcourt notes,
it’s likely that police strategy has little to do with those trends. And that applies when crime is going down, as well as when it is going up.
The media, unfortunately, tend to gravitate to quick assessments rather than correct ones. As such, the industry’s tendency to rely on police for answers—which they habitually do in everyday crime blotter journalism (Washington Post, 6/30/20)—subtly works to center police expertise, and therefore power.
CNN’s ‘bloody summer’
CNN (6/9/21) did its part with coverage warning its audience of a “bloody summer,” featuring an interview with a representative of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group. The network didn’t focus on why crime has gone up, but rather on the police response to it. In fact, CNN quoted four police leaders and one former police commissioner, which narrowed the entire concept of crime to something that only police are experts at addressing. This sort of journalism, while not as inflammatory as the New York Post or Fox News, reinforces the politics that favor police as saviors.
Chuck Wexler, spokesperson for the policy group, told CNN,
It’s challenging to be a police officer right now but it’s also from a police chief’s standpoint. They’re not getting much sleep.
CNN‘s Jim Sciutto followed up with a police ride-along piece (6/22/21) where they quite literally jumped into police cars so that cops could explain to them the crime situation. “Here’s what they told us about spiking crime in the city,” which was part of the story’s headline, is in fact what any reasonable person would identify as police stenography—uncritically regurgitating police talking points. CNN apparently likes to embed themselves with cops. In 2014, C NN‘s Jake Tapper agreed with the police chief’s request for the network to report alongside cops after initially reporting on how militarized police were attacking protesters (FAIR.org, 8/19/14).
If one doesn’t simply take the police’s word on what is causing crime, there are numerous factors to consider. For example, in addition to the pandemic’s social economic and human toll, there has been an unprecedented surge in gun sales across America that can often work their way into urban centers.
Whatever the reason for certain crime increases—and again, while some violent crimes, like shootings, have increased, overall crime in America has not (FAIR.org, 6/21/21)—the media’s fascination with crime and crime-fighters embraces simplistic, digestible police-provided soundbites (e.g., “ NYPD Blames Police Reform for Violent Holiday Weekend “—NY1, 7/6/20) and ready-made police heroes.
This form of journalism completely omits the idea that social and socio-economic stability profoundly affects crime—which might make people want to address crime by addressing those underlying conditions, rather than reflexively relying on police. By hyping a crime trend and platforming police experts in how to deal with it, the media show that they aren’t neutral observers but actually providing a journalistic cover to the idea that police—or the “thin blue line“—are the only thing standing between us and bloody carnage.
Josmar Trujillo is a former columnist for Extra! who writes at the Huffington Post, Newsday, City Limits and amNY. He is also an organizer with the Coalition to End Broken Windows and New Yorkers Against Bratton.