Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

What’s Beneath New York’s Numbers: A Conversation with Michael LiPetri

Vital City

February 28, 2024

An NYPD commander’s read on what’s happening

An NYPD commander’s read on what’s happening

in the nation’s largest city

New York City finished 2023 with homicides down 11% and shootings down 24% — marking significant declines in both categories for the second straight year. Felonies and car thefts were both up year over year, however, and many categories of crime remain elevated as compared to 2019.

We spoke with the New York Police Department’s chief of crime control strategies, Michael LiPetri, to understand what is working, what’s not, and why. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Credit: Arthur Mount. Portrait of Michael LiPetri.

Vital City: Let’s start with your assessment of 2023. The city was coming off three years, 2017 to 2019, with extraordinarily low crime rates. Then the pandemic hit, shootings exploded and now we’re seeing some things come down. What were the challenges? What were the successes of 2023, and what drove them?

Michael LiPetri: I’ll speak about the successes first. We continue to drive down shooting violence in New York City. When you look at 2020, 2021 and ultimately 2022, last year saw 719 fewer victims of gunshot from 2020, 726 fewer victims from 2021 and ultimately 416 victims from 2022. That represents the fourth-safest year in shootings in the CompStat era in 30 years. The only other three better years were the three years that you saw historic lows in both crime and shootings and murders from 2017 to 2019. 

One of the things that really helped us was that we knew what happened the last two summers, and we were determined not to have that happen again. 

We identified hot spots of violence in particular areas. We did a deep data dive in those areas. We looked at shots confirmed — using either ballistics, recovered video or an eyewitness, whether it be a police officer or a civilian. We overlaid that with shooting incidents, known cases of people getting shot. We also looked at street crimes, because what we see and what we’ve known, and I know this over the years, is that if you overlay shootings, shots fired and robberies, it pretty much is concentrated in areas that need to be policed differently.

VC: Geographically, are those hot spots pretty constant over the years or have they shifted?

ML: We have seen small shifts of concentrated street crime in some areas in Northern Queens, some areas in the Bronx. We looked at times crimes were being committed, between the hours of 7:30 p.m. and 4 a.m. in the summer months, we saw an increase in violence. So we took more than 1,000 officers, moved them into these zones on foot. They had to be on foot patrol. And we saw a real sharp reduction in shootings. 

What we did differently is we measured it in a very detailed way, using our Domain Awareness System [a detailed, almost real-time approach to identifying crimes and deployment].

VC: Can you elaborate on how that works?

ML: The data was there for myself and the executive staff, enabling us to drill down to determine exactly what was going on. The questions were: Do we need to shift resources? Do we need to put more officers in specific zones? Every single week, on Monday, we produced a violence-reduction CompStat book. It only captured the specific hours the additional officers were deployed, and it only captured specific crimes. I knew which crimes were up, which were down and which enforcement activity was up.

I knew which officers were doing what. I knew where the field-training units (FTUs), which pair rookie officers with more experienced officers, were in those zones. So I would plot the FTU activity and say, “Well FTUs, they’re supposed to be in that zone, but I see that they’re policing in another area of your precinct. Why is that?”

At the same time, I expected the Detective Bureau to concentrate their units’ enforcement within those zones. A lot of the violence was fueled by narcotics disputes. So I would want narcotics enforcement in those zones. So it was very organized. It was a layered approach. 

Obviously, in the fall, things changed with crime, just as the weather changed. So we tweaked them, we made them a little smaller, we changed them. Then what we did was we made holiday zones, and we started that before Thanksgiving. So we looked at areas within malls, around malls. We looked at Midtown Manhattan. We looked uptown; we looked downtown. So we expanded this area with the same concept, but we called them “holiday zones.”

Overall citywide, we saw an 11.8% year-over-year increase in seven-major-crime arrests. 

The last three years, obviously, there have been more guns on the street. We know that for a fact. But the last three years, we’ve averaged more than 4,500 gun arrests. Prior to 2020, the last time we had a single year over 4,000 was 1996 — and in the three pre-pandemic years, 2017-2019, we averaged just over 3,200.

VC: What is your sense of what changed since 2019, both on the side of neighborhoods and on the side of the Police Department?

ML: Look, crime shifted in 2017, 2018, 2019. The way we policed changed too: We saw fewer foot patrols. We saw fewer saturation patrols, because we didn’t have to do them as much because we didn’t have as much street crime.

Well, street crime started going back up after 2019. I went to the police commissioner with this, saying, “Hey, I think we need to change our tack a little bit, go back to things that worked for us when we saw higher crime and higher street crime, and try to bring that down.” 

Even if you look at the murders, back in 2020 to 2021, we were almost at 70% where gunshots accounted for the murders. That was one of the highest I’ve seen by doing this for a long time. And now that’s even coming down; I think last year it was like 57%.

Who are those who pulled triggers multiple times in a rolling two-year period? That list right now in New York City is about 600 individuals.

VC: Are you seeing, since the pandemic, a change in the mix of homicides?

ML: As far as motives, as far as relation, method, other than the gunshot, not really. It’s really stayed steady. Same thing with shootings. The only thing that we have seen with an uptick in shootings is our narcotics shootings are starting to uptick.

VC: Why do you think that is?

ML: Well, there’s a couple of reasons. Narcotics prosecutions for felonies are really down. There are many who are arraigned on a felony narcotics charge who will actually plead to that felony. So that has definitely changed. Almost about 12% of our shootings last year were narcotics-related, which is higher than it’s been in many prior years. You know the phenomenon with the smoke shops. That is clearly being driven by the illicit trade of marijuana and the cash that’s on hand.

VC: For so long, we’ve seen a substantial difference in clearance rates between murders and shootings more generally. Do you think that there’s a way to drive up low clearance rates on nonfatal shootings?

ML: That’s a good question. Obviously, there are a lot more shootings than murders. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is there is nothing worse, obviously, than a murder. Right from when that person dies, you have a homicide detective on board, you have a detective squad, and you have an assistant district attorney who is right on board. And obviously a very experienced ADA, where witnesses are videotaped right away, the DA’s office comes down to the precinct and so forth. So everything is done in a manner that I would love to say can be done for every shooting, but unfortunately, we know it can’t.

Our homicide clearance rate last year was 70%, and that’s on homicides committed last year. So of 391 homicides, we cleared a little over 70% of them. When you look at shootings, we’re in that 45% to 50% range. 

VC: Talk about sharpening the focus on trigger-pullers. 

ML: What I wanted to do was look at the people who pulled triggers in New York City. Who are those who pulled triggers multiple times in a rolling two-year period? That list right now in New York City is about 600 individuals. All 600 of those individuals are either suspected, arrested or wanted for pulling the trigger in New York City. The detective squads are investigating those shootings and shots fired. So everybody on that list is being investigated for pulling the trigger. 

So we take a look at those individuals, we do a deep dive into them to know exactly what they’ve been arrested for, what we speculate they might be doing to make money, what gang or crew they are involved in.

When we started this, about 15% of that list was incarcerated. We’ve almost doubled that. So 30% of those 600 are incarcerated. Not all of them are incarcerated for pulling that trigger, but they’re incarcerated for something. 

VC: When you think about a city of 8 to 9 million, and then you think about the number of shootings, and then you think about this 600, it seems like focusing on the 600 could have an outsize effect on shootings. Has that been your experience?

ML: Those 600 can be responsible for 30% of the shootings.

VC: Assaults and car thefts are up. What’s happening there, and is there anything from the strategies that have been successful in pushing down murders and shootings that could be applied to these other areas?

ML: Historically, domestic assaults are approximately 40% of all felony assaults citywide. I personally think that we have one of the most proactive domestic violence programs in the country, but it’s something that we have to continue to look at, continue to help the victims, work with our prosecutors to have victims continue to cooperate as much as possible, and ultimately strengthen prevention. 

When you then look at the assaults on police officers, that’s related to the fact that we’ve had the highest levels of enforcement that we’ve had in years: Civil summonses, criminal court summonses, arrests, seven-major arrests — all these things were at 25-year highs. These are serious, serious arrests. So, unfortunately, more police officers are going to get assaulted. So we had an increase of 350 police officers that got assaulted

The other thing we take a real hard look at is the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. And we have seen a stubborn uptick of stranger assaults over the past three years.

VC: Street assaults of victims unknown to the perpetrators?

ML: Yeah. Not as sharp as those other two drivers, but we have seen stranger assaults increase, especially in areas that have a lot of density. So we look at Manhattan, in and around the transit hubs, and throughout our transit system.

We put 1,000 officers in transit for periods of last year, and that really helped us reverse the trend in transit and ultimately have a decrease in transit crime. 

VC: Why do murders and shootings seem to be coming back to trend, returning to the lower numbers, but you’re seeing an uptick in some of these other crimes? What’s your assessment of why we have those crossing lines?

Shoplifting, no matter how you slice it, is a recidivist-driven crime. We have about 500 individuals that last year were arrested almost 8,000 times. That’s 30% of all our shoplifting arrests. And those are career criminals.

ML: You’ve got to ultimately look at consequences, right? They’re just not there as they were in the past. We have to make sure that we continue to leverage our District Attorneys’ offices as we have, and to attempt to continue to charge that felony, keep that felony throughout the process. There is not a DA’s office that won’t tell you that they are absolutely bogged down with discovery.

You look at patterns of crimes in New York City. You get a robbery in New York City and it’s a street robbery and the person’s on a moped, or it’s a group of individuals, you have to start thinking where the next one’s going to be.

The explosion of patterns, grand larceny snatches, robberies, street robberies has just increased astronomically. Those are very complex investigations, not only for our squad, but can you imagine the discovery that we have to turn over? 

You get one robbery arrest in a pattern, you can have upwards of 50 body-worn cameras. I could have four, five, six bureaus that could respond: Housing, transit, our emergency service unit and many other units. That’s just talking body-worn cameras. Then for each one, I have to get their electronic memo book. So discovery, discovery, discovery. It is really hindering prosecutions and it’s hindering us being able to incarcerate and incapacitate the individuals.

The recidivism rate in New York City is at high levels, though it is coming down a little bit, but it’s a phenomenon that we’ve been dealing with since COVID that continues to rear its ugly head.

VC: New York remains a very safe city by most measures. And yet when you talk to people around the city, when you read articles, there does seem to be a sense of anxiety or fear. And maybe you see this in some of the more minor crimes like shoplifting, quality of life stuff. I’m wondering how you think about things like shoplifting. What’s driving it? What could be done about it?

ML: Well, it’s a few things. Shoplifting, no matter how you slice it, is a recidivist-driven crime. We have about 500 individuals that last year were arrested almost 8,000 times. That’s 30% of all our shoplifting arrests. And those are career criminals, because half of those 500 have already been convicted of a felony. And each one of those individuals has been arrested more than eight times. And a quarter of them are incarcerated right now. 

They’re emboldened. They are. I’m sorry; they are. 

Our shoplifting arrests were up over 3,000 last year, and our shoplifting complaints were down. But they’re still at unacceptable levels. And this is the mentality: Let’s go in, let’s take property and let’s walk out and not really worry about getting any kind of prosecution with it.

We are talking to the DA’s offices. We have good plans. We’re sharing data. There is a small percentage of it that is organized retail theft. We have our grand larceny unit that investigates those. We’ve gotten better results. Our detective squads are clearing more shoplifting complaints than they ever have in the past. So we do see some things that are improving. 

I go to a lot of conferences. I speak to a lot of executives. This is going on all over the country. 

VC: What keeps you up at night?

ML: Everything. Let me drill down a little bit. Juvenile crime: It’s shrouded in secrecy, to be quite honest with you, which I understand. It’s unbelievable the data that we see with victims and perpetrators both under the age of 18. We do not arrest juveniles anymore unless it’s for one of the seven major crimes or a gun crime. And we are arresting these juveniles at the highest levels that we ever had for serious offenses. And we know through the data that if you get arrested with a gun and you’re under the age of 18, within two years, a quarter of that population will be involved in a shooting in some way. 

What are we doing to tackle juvenile victims, juvenile crime? It is really, really concerning to me. It’s continuing at unnecessary levels. And there’s nothing out there that I hear about it. Nothing.