Don, a 30-year-old New Yorker who works in publishing, was making his way through the Atlantic Avenue subway station like he does every day, looking at his phone, listening to music, when he got sucker punched by a stranger. It was 8pm on a recent Thursday, and the Brooklyn transport hub was particularly busy because of a hockey game at the nearby Barclays Center.
Don, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for this story, fell to the ground. Blood started gushing from a cut under his eye. He felt around the subway platform for his glasses. A bystander helped him up and gave him a bandana to mop up the blood. He was transported to hospital, where he received nine stitches and a cold compress for his swollen black eye.
The assailant, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen. And there was something strange about the assault: The attacker didn't try to rob Don or offer any hint of what provoked the punch. "I can't really think of the why," Don said, grasping for an explanation, "apart from that it was something about me."
Earlier this month, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference to announce that the city had seen its lowest January crime rates on record. Murders were down 45 percent in the first month of 2016 and shootings fell 34 percent compared to the previous January. But at the same time, a wave of violent — and apparently random — assaults has been cause for alarm.
Knife crime spiked by about 21 percent in New York over the last year, and there have been 567 stabbing and slashing incidents since January 1, nearly 100 more incidents than during the same time period in 2015. Seven of the known suspects had no prior relationship to their victims. Seven isn't a huge number, but the completely arbitrary and often public nature of those assaults has police puzzled. Robert Boyce, the NYPD's chief of detectives, acknowledged that the string of attacks was "a little unusual for us."
On the morning of January 6, a 24-year old was walking through Greenwich Village on her way to work when a strange man ran up and slashed her face with a knife. On January 15, a 30-year old man was strolling down a busy street in the East Village with headphones on when a man pushed him against the wall, stabbed him in the back, and gave him a "Chelsea Smile," cutting his face from ear to mouth. The wound required 150 stitches. Ten days later, a 71-year old grandmother was slashed across the cheek with a razor while she was riding the 6 train on her way to work in the morning. Just last week, a 21-year old had his cheek slashed by a man in a ski mask who accused him of cutting the line outside a Nolita skate shop.
In each of the cases, the assailants didn't attempt to take anything from their victims. Bratton has brushed off the string of "isolated incidents" as an "aberration," and he said in a radio interview last month that New Yorkers "shouldn't be worried." Except for the skate shop attacker, police arrested suspects in all of the incidents.
"Each one seems to have its own motivation when we make the arrest and we get into what was behind it," Bratton said earlier this month.
'Each one seems to have its own motivation when we make the arrest and we get into what was behind it.'
Over the weekend, four more people were slashed or stabbed in separate incidents in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Last week, there were three slashing attacks and a stabbing in a span of three days.
Detective Robert DeBonis, an NYPD spokesman, insisted that there's "no pattern" to the incidents. Transit bureau chief Joseph Fox has also maintained that "there's no pattern," adding "There's no connection between any two of them. They're not gang related."
The way crime data for New York City is compiled, it's hard to tease out if the number of public, unprovoked assaults so far in 2016 is drastically different from previous years. But the city's tabloids have taken note, giving the knife attacks front-page treatment with sensational headlines like, "Blade Runner: Mad Slasher Cuts Woman, Dashes Off," and "Cut and Run: New Slasher Strikes Fear in Subway," both of which ran in the New York Post.
Bratton isn't thrilled with the media attention these attacks have received. At a press conference at police headquarters on Monday, the commissioner asked reporters when they last wrote about gunfire. "Shootings and murders are down, but you've lost interest in that," he said.
While New York's top cop insists the attacks aren't linked, some criminologists wonder if it could be a copycat effect, where assailants reenact crimes they've heard about through the media. Raymond Surette, a criminal justice professor at the University of Florida, told New York magazine that the most recent incidents in New York were too similar to be a coincidence. "In my opinion, it's unlikely that they're fully independent of each other," he said.
Alfred Blumstein, the former director of the National Consortium of Violence Research and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told VICE News that he "hates to contradict Bratton," but copycats are a plausible explanation. "When slashings have been played up in newspapers and on TV, the copycat effect comes in," he said.
"This is clearly an act of frustration, someone lashing out at the world, following loss of some kind like losing a job or another traumatic event," Blumstein said. "This is where the copycat can come in."
'This is clearly an act of frustration, someone lashing out at the world.'
While Bratton hasn't offered any possible motive for the attacks, he did offer one explanation in a radio interview last month. "Unfortunately, some of the individuals we're dealing with — as you report and as we know — are emotionally disturbed, they're off their meds," he said. "Some instances, there is a motivation in their own mind."
The tabloids have also suggested that the city's mental health crisis is a factor, with headlines like "Maniac Was Off Meds When He Fatally Stabbed Bronx Woman." DeBonis, the NYPD spokesman, said two of the seven knife assailants who had no prior relationship with their victims had histories of mental illness.
Last summer, the mayor's office rolled out a $22 million initiative called "NYC Safe," which seeks to identify and treat at-risk individuals before they commit a crime. De Blasio's wife, Chirlane McCray, who is spearheading efforts to reform the city's mental health care system, told VICE News that conflating violent behavior with mental illness only serves to stigmatize the latter.
"We should be cautious about using mental illness as a scapegoat for crime," McCray said. "Most people who have a mental illness are not violent. People who have mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators."
If a copycat phenomena is to blame for the attacks, Surette said the good news is that it will likely peter out eventually. "The incidents lose their novelty, they're covered less," he said. "Eventually, the incidents fade out."
In the meantime, Bratton has some advice to help New Yorkers avoid being slashed, sucker punched or stabbed: Just don't "engage."
"You need to be very aware, being quite frank," Bratton said. "There's just a way to avoid certain people… you see someone coming into the subway that's acting irrationally, either drunk or under the influence of drugs or emotionally disturbed, basically, seek to get the police there. Seek to avoid that person. Get out of there as quickly as you can."
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen