An NYC subway car free of the alleged scourge of knife attacks. Photo via Flickr user James Loesch
Unless you've been living under a rock or in a K2-induced state of catatonia, you've probably heard something about the spate of knife attacks across New York City in recent days. Tuesday saw a trio of disturbing episodes in the streets of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan, and there were ten stabbing and slashing incidents reported on the city subway system as of Monday, according to the New York Daily News. Naturally, the local tabloids—and seemingly everyone you talk to—is terrified of being assaulted by a blade-bearing lunatic. Even Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who called the sudden uptick in knifings an "aberration," seemed to give credence to the idea that the subway system was dangerous at a Wednesday press conference.
But let's calm down for a second: No matter what nervous chatter you hear from your friends or what headlines you read on the front page of the New York Post, everything is fine, and the city's knife crime is nothing to worry about.
As the New York Times reported in late December, NYC is as safe these days as it's ever been in the modern era. Shootings were down in 2015, and even if murders rose very slightly, total crime numbers were down too. Subway assaults are up from this time last year, true (there were 37 such attacks in January 2016, compared to 12 a year ago), but you have to be careful when throwing out contextless crime statistics like that.
"Massive Uptick in NYC Shootings," screamed a Post headline last May, just one of many tabloid missives decrying a return to the bad old days of graffiti, grifters, gun violence, and muggings. Of course, by the end of December, the year-on-year shooting numbers had leveled out and finished lower than in 2014. And if you really want to look at month-on-month stats, you can't ignore the fact that when it comes to murders, January was the safest in decades, with killings down 45 percent, according to the NYPD.
"The January homicide numbers are astonishing, and once again demonstrate the dubious claims of 'a science of policing' or that the city would unravel if the cops are not doing full-throttle enforcement," Eugene O'Donnell, a former Brooklyn cop and prosecutor, wrote me in an email.
O'Donnell is talking about the fact that, since peaking at over 685,000 in 2011, street stops by NYPD officers have dropped massively amid legal challenges and public outrage at stop-and-frisk tactics. But when you freak out about statistical blips in violent crime, all sorts of buffoons tend to come out of the woodwork.
"People were appealing to us. They were calling us, reaching out to us. When we were on the trains, people would converse with us and say, 'We need you back,'" Curtis Sliwa, the putative head of the Guardian Angels, a publicity-hungry vigilante group that made a big show of patrolling city streets and subways in the 1980s, told TIME on Wednesday. The Angels are reportedly on the job again, though relying on them for anything at all is probably a bad idea. (In the 90s, Sliwa admitted that the group had faked a bunch of "crimes" so it could foil them.)
But Sliwa is not alone in thinking extraordinary measures may be necessary here. NYPD officials were reportedly considering banning so-called "career criminals" from the subway system as of last week—though that sort of blanket action likely wouldn't be legal. And while the massive decline of stop-and-frisk since 2011 is rightly celebrated, it's at least theoretically possible for some kinds of crime to increase as a result.
"The truth is that if the cops are having fewer enforcement interfaces—arrests for fare evasion, summonses for violations such as smoking or urinating in the subway, fewer ejections (a power transit cops have)—this will probably result in less pre-emption of violent acts and also may embolden people who are prone to acting out," O'Donnell explains. "The subway, especially in winter, has a lot of mentally ill riders (some of whom are violent), and it is not a stretch to think that this tiny cohort of violent people—off their meds—might not be intercepted before they commit heinous crimes."
That said, it's too early to form any kind of conclusion: 2016 will be a long year, and we won't know for a while whether knife attacks in New York have risen, fallen, or stayed the same. Too bad. "Statistically insignificant uptick in crime hits NYC subways" doesn't make a very good headline.
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