Rafael Mangual joins Seth Barron to discuss the surge in gun violence in New York City and other American cities, the impact of newly enacted criminal-justice reforms on policing, and the connection between “low-level” enforcement and major-crime prevention.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Welcome to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is Seth Barron, your host for today. I'm the associate editor at City Journal. Joining me is Rafael Mangual. He's a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor to City Journal, and he writes widely on criminology and the police. Ralf, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Rafael Mangual: Thanks so much for having me back.

Seth Barron: Things have really been pretty crazy in New York City the last few weeks. The last month, we've seen constant protests, violence associated with the George Floyd protest, but independently of that, there's been a major uptick in violent crime, particularly shootings and homicides. Do you have the numbers on those?

Rafael Mangual: Well, so far, as of June 28th, homicides in the city are up 23%. Shootings are up, I think a little more than that. If I remember correctly, it's about 28%, but of course this is yesterday, and mark the end of the third straight week in which New York City has seen double the number of shootings as compared to the same week last year, so this is starting to look more and more like a trend with every day that goes by.

Seth Barron: Yeah. I think Commissioner Shea had indicated that this might be sustained. This is like a sustained increase. What's driving this?

Rafael Mangual: Well, I think there are a lot of things that are driving this. I mean, New York City would be the least ideal place to kind of do a natural experiment to pinpoint this on a particular policy shift, so I think it's a combination. We've had obviously a sort of endless march toward criminal justice reform, almost for its own sake for the past few years now. I think a lot of those things from Bail Reform and Discovery Reform, The Right to Know Act, reductions in pedestrian stops within the NYPD, just a whole combination of factors, you've had the DA in Brooklyn sort of refusing to bring charges for various offenses, same thing in Manhattan, more diversions, you've had kind of all these forces kind of coming together at a time in which with this global pandemic, you'd be expecting violent crime to go down, right? I mean, you'd have fewer people on the streets, fewer opportunities for victimization, yet we've seen the opposite of that.

I think a lot of people have kind of looked at the shooting numbers, the homicide numbers and have been surprised. Then, of course, on top of all that, you've got the sort of fallout from the George Floyd protests, and then this is not unique to New York, but indeed, it's something we're seeing around the country in major cities, whether it's Atlanta, or Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis, Louisville. What we see is a lot of outrage. We've seen a kind of decrease in the legitimacy of police in the eyes of a lot of people living in high-crime communities, and I think that's emboldened the criminal class at the same time that they just kind of put real fear into the hearts of police officers who truly and deeply worry about being the kind of next viral sensation and worry about the new legal and financial risks that they face every time they get out of their car to engage in an enforcement interaction.

Seth Barron: I've heard this argument before, that the police are shifting into a more reactive posture, vis-a-vis crime, instead of taking a proactive posture because like you said, they're afraid of getting caught in the next viral moment, but I've heard some advocates for criminal justice reform saying, "Hey, that's too bad. This is your job. Go out and do your job," so what do you say to that?

Rafael Mangual: Yeah, well, I say to that is that they're sending mixed signals to say the least, right? I mean, these are the same people who decry the same kind of proactivity that we know is associated with decreasing crime, and so but it sounds to me like is that these activist politicians want to reap the benefits of proactive policing. That is to say they want to be able to continue to point to low crime numbers in their jurisdictions, while at the same time, being seen as kind of on the "White side of history" when it comes to these reform discussions, and so it's a bit of hypocrisy at play, I think. Some criminal justice reformers have kind of used these slowdowns in police activity, to kind of make the argument that police are essentially embodying their hostility to the communities that they are supposed to serve, and that they're sort of taking their ball and going home, and of course it's not what we're seeing. What we're seeing is actual fear, right?

I think, would be interesting for people to read some of the most recent research from Harvard Economist, Roland Fryer, who did a study on kind of the effect of viral incidents on crime in various cities and especially when those viral incidents are sort of coupled with these pattern and practice investigations. As part of that study, he did some focus groups, and in those focus groups, he consistently had police officers express fear of being "The next viral sensation," and so I think it's real fear that's driving police into a more reactive posture. I think it's a real sense of uncertainty as to exactly how the public wants them to deal with violent suspects. I think there's a lack of appreciation within these communities for how difficult the job of policing is.

Seth Barron: Hold on, because criminal justice reform happened months ago already, and we didn't see a spike in shootings, and the new Anti-Chokehold law hasn't even been signed into effect yet, and we have seen a spike in shootings, so I don't get where ... I mean, some advocates have said you can't draw a cause and effect relationship here because they don't exactly coincide.

Rafael Mangual: Well, these things never exactly coincide, right? Again, they're right to say that causation is not the same thing as correlation, but it's not true to say that crime was essentially flat before all this started happening, right? At the front end of this year, we saw in the first two months of 2020, New York City crime shootings in particular, go up pretty significantly, and a lot of people pointed to Bail Reform as a significant driver of that, which seems reasonable to me given what the research says about Bail Reform. For example, there's a study from researchers at Princeton and Harvard that looked at the effects of increasing pretrial release, and what they found was that when you release a defendant pre-trial, the likelihood of that defendant committing a crime during the pre-trial period goes up 37%, which is not a small amount, right? It's not just Bail Reform, it's Discovery Reform. It's diversion programs. It's refusals to charge certain types of offenses. It's reductions and proactive police activity like pedestrian stops, right? We've seen the NYPD disbanded anti-crime teams recently. It's the sort of demoralizing effect that the riots have had on police.

The effect of COVID on the department, right? Earlier this year, we saw lots of police officers calling in sick with COVID symptoms. We had, I think over 1,000 the last time I checked officers testing positive within just the first few weeks of the shutdown, and so, yeah, I think again, there are a lot of forces at play that do, I think logically point to playing a role, at least a small role in the sort of crime increase that we're seeing now. I mean, again, we've decided to close Rikers Island and cap the capacity at 3,500 inmates. That means reducing our jail population, which has for many years now, consisted primarily of really violent and difficult to manage detainees.

Those aren't my words. That's from the Mayor's Management Report in 2017, when they were explaining why the violence numbers at Rikers Island were so high.

Seth Barron: Let me interrupt you there for a moment. Most of the people on Rikers Island are not guilty of any charges.

Rafael Mangual: Well, not yet at least, but they are certainly repeat offenders. About 75% of the Rikers population has been there before, so these are not your sort of first-time offenders who happen to just get caught up in some unfortunate accident. For the most part, incarceration in New York City jails is reserved for pretty serious criminals, and we see that evidenced in multiple ways, both in the conviction rates that we see, but also in terms of the violence numbers. Again, in our city jails, we've cut the population down from more than 17,500 in 1998 to, it's got to be around 5,000 now, but in 2019, we saw almost double the number of fight and assault infractions with a significantly smaller population than was seen in 1998, when you had almost 10,000 more inmates, and so again, the city's own explanation has been that one of the reasons the violence has been so hard to just sort of get under control was because the remaining population of inmates is so violent, has such a troubling criminal history, and so, yeah. I mean, again, I think that's just one example though, of this kind of blind march toward more and more reform, which raises the question of whether criminal justice reformers are ever going to feel like they've had enough.

Like it's time to take a break and sort of see how things work out. Early indications are that these reforms haven't exactly been very benign.

Seth Barron: Well, to what extent has the drop in the number of people in Rikers, and the drop in crime in New York City over the last 20 or 30 years, to what extent is that attributable to the work of violence interrupters, community groups? These are sometimes ex-gang members who proactively go out without guns to diffuse tension on the streets and limit violence. Some people are saying that this is the new ... This should be the model for policing.

Rafael Mangual: Yeah. Well, I think the date on this is pretty light. I don't see a whole lot of support for that theory in the literature. Look, I mean, there's certainly a possibility that some of these violent interrupters can actually interrupt violence in at least some subset of instances, but the idea that the kind of sort of depraved soul that would pull up a triggering cold blood is amenable to reason, is I think a bit far-fetched. There's certainly plenty of reasons to make a rational choice not to commit violent crime and the idea that it's only these violent interrupters that hold that key, I think is frankly a little silly.

Seth Barron: Everyone in New York was kind of horrified by the murder of Brandon Hendricks last week. This was a 17-year old boy who just graduated from high school. He was preparing to go to St. John's on a basketball scholarship, and he was killed. I guess they just arrested his murderer, his alleged murderer, who, it sounds, I'm not sure if he'd been arrested for this other crime, but he had strangled his uncle a few weeks ago. I guess this sort of supports your thesis that a lot of these criminals, these violent people are known to the police.

Rafael Mangual: Oh, yeah.

Seth Barron: Can you draw any implications out of this?

Rafael Mangual: Well, yeah. I mean, look, most of the time when we hear about one of these really terrible cases and the perpetrators found, and the New York City Police Department does about as good a job as any other department in actually clearing these kinds of crimes, is very rarely a surprise to the people who learned the identity of the alleged killer, which is to say that almost always, the person charged with these crimes is a career criminal with a dozen arrests or so and multiple convictions. What this means is that a high number of arrests indicate that police are actually doing a pretty good job of focusing their limited resources on exactly the right kinds of people. What it also tells us is that the system may actually be playing a role in creating some of these dangers by failing to hold these individuals for longer periods of time. We see this with crimes committed by people who were out after being released on their own cognizance pre-trial, they're given probation after a conviction or paroled early.

I would remind listeners that the Brooklyn DA's office has adopted a default position of supporting bids for parole, unless there exists some exigent circumstance for why they shouldn't, and that's sort of reversal of what the policy has been, and so these are all, I think, intuitively understood by people to be sort of self-inflicted wounds, which is to say that they're intuitively understood to be avoidable crimes, and unfortunately, the sort of the headwinds are blowing in a direction that undermine the political will to do something about that problem.

Seth Barron: Well, when you talk about avoidable crimes, that reminds me, up through last week, we had a huge debate in New York City, and this is really reflecting a national concern about defunding the police. There were a lot of people demanding that the New York City budget for the police be slashed substantially. A lot of people were very upset that what they wound up doing didn't go far enough, and I guess the argument is that if you were to defund the police, like seriously take away their budget and pour all of that money into education, social services, counseling, better career counseling, violence interruption, all of these social service programs, then you'd address the root cause of crime, and then you'd really avoid crime. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Rafael Mangual: Yeah. I mean, this root cause argument has been around for a really long time. Again, there's certainly correlation between things like poverty and violent crime, but I just don't see the data supporting the idea that, one, we know how to sort of cure poverty and get that down to zero, and two, that doing that would actually make a significant dent in the sort of violent crime that is plaguing a lot of America's inner cities. I mean, no one's ever really made the sort of root cause argument for New York's enormous and sustained crime decline. I think that's telling in and of itself the, if you look at New York City between 1990 and today, homicides went from about 2,200 plus to below 300, or I guess last year, we were up above 300.

What the root cause argument suggests is that we should expect to see, have seen some serious decline in poverty over that time, but of course, New York City's 2016 poverty rate was 19.5%, which is actually slightly higher than it was in 1989, which is 18.8% when, of course violence was an exponentially larger problem in the city, and you see this around the country. I mean, Philadelphia has been experiencing a spike in violent crime in recent years, but their poverty rate has remained essentially steady since 2006. It's more than a decade. It was actually higher in 2011, at 28.4% when there were fewer murders than there were in 2018, when the poverty rate was lower. This idea that there's this just clear correlation between poverty and crime, I don't think really holds up.

I would point people to the work of Barry Latzer, who's articulated this in the form of what he calls crime/adversity mismatch, which again, just shows that there's actually a lot of variation between culturally identifiable groups, even when you control for things like socioeconomic circumstances. There's some evidence out of Chicago too, in between 2014 and 2016. The black male unemployment rate decreased significantly during that time per pupil spending in the Chicago public school system went up significantly. Yet during that time, you had a nearly 60% increase in homicides, and so what I think people need to understand is that when we're talking about a very serious violent crime problem, we're talking about a very tiny portion of our population that is not particularly responsive to these kinds of sort of circumstances. The last point I'll make on this is that sort of implicit in the root cause argument is this idea that criminals are sort of weighing their options and choosing crime because they don't have a sort of a better alternative by which to sort of make money.

What this ignores is that shooting someone in the face doesn't really make you any money. Beating someone after you've robbed them doesn't make you any money. I just saw a video out of Harlem, where a young man hit a woman who wasn't even paying attention in the face as hard as he could with a skateboard because she "Disrespected" him. That's not a matter of socioeconomic circumstance, but again, implicit in their argument is this idea that we can sort of change the calculus of criminals by giving them more options, but that also would imply the logical extension of that would be that we could change the calculus of criminals by also making the option of crime less attractive by increasing penalties.

Seth Barron: Oh, that is a good point. I did read about a report recently. I wish I had the details to hand. Maybe you read about it too. There's this argument that having drugs be illegal drives violence because there's an illegal drug trade, and hence, there's a lot of competition, and shootings and so forth emerge from that, but someone looked at all of these drug-related shootings or shootings, and determined that very of them were actually related to the business of drugs, illegal drugs, and it was generally a question of respect.

Rafael Mangual: Right. Right. That's what we see in a lot of high crime cities. The vast bulk of the violent crime is driven not by the sort of drug trade, not by people beefing over turf, but it's usually just driven by personal slights, perceived disrespect. A lot of it has actually started over social media, and police in various cities have told me different versions of the following story, which is that a lot of their shootings kind of originate with a "Disrespectful post" on Instagram or something like that, where you'll have a local gang member take a picture in the opposing gang's territory or with an opposing gang member's girlfriend, and along with some derogatory commentary, and that that was sort of make the rounds, and then spur this kind of retaliation that, of course feeds this cycle of revenge killings. It's really kind of something to see, but there is a very big difference between how drug-related crime can be categorized, right?

There's systemic drug-related crime, which is to say that these are crimes related to the trade itself, and then there's pharmacological crime, and I think what you'd find is that a much bigger chunk than people think of drug-related crime is actually pharmacological and not systemic.

Seth Barron: Meaning that someone's on drugs...

Rafael Mangual: Right. Right. They're sort of induced to commit the crime because they're in an altered state of consciousness. We see this a lot with drugs like PCP, and cocaine, meth.

Seth Barron: I will point out that Alex Berenson, the former New York Times science writer, who wrote a book about marijuana, he suggests that the one consistent factor among all violent criminals is that they all smoke marijuana.

Rafael Mangual: There's a lot of overlap between so-called non-violent drug offenders and really violent defenders, right? The reality is, of course, criminals don't specialize, and one of the reasons why we see sort of a drug enforcement concentrated in high crime areas to the degree that we see it is simply because police understand that they can actually gain some real, tangible benefits in the form of violent crime reductions by enforcing drug crimes in high crime areas because there's that overlap between the sort of offenders who engage in lower level drug use and dealing, and more serious violent crime. While there are really strong sort of moral philosophical arguments to be made in favor of ending the drug war, some of which I'm personally sympathetic to, I think that people really need to grapple with the reality that crime would likely go up a pretty significant degree if we weren't able to sort of gain the small benefits that we do gain in the form of crime reduction through driving force.

Seth Barron: Fascinating stuff. Thank you, Ralf for joining us on 10 Blocks today.

Rafael Mangual: Thank you so much for having me. Always a pleasure.

Seth Barron: If you like our podcast and you'd like to hear more, please leave reviews and ratings on iTunes, and tune in next week for the next episode of 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal.

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