Dave Sanders / The New York Times / Redux

New York City Crime Beyond the Numbers

Josh Greenman

March 22, 2024

If the city is so safe, why do growing numbers of residents feel fearful? 

If the city is so safe, why do growing numbers of residents feel fearful? 

Twin sisters were stabbed outside a Brooklyn bodega in mid-March, one fatally, after the two rejected a drunken man’s advances inside the store. It happened in the early Sunday morning hours five minutes from where I live in the neighborhood of Park Slope, in almost exactly the same place someone was killed three years ago. I know the store and corner well: I used to get snacks there on Sundays before bar trivia.

I know not to turn anecdotes and headlines into trends or emotional reactions into analysis. Statistics do not lie, and this is what they say: New York City is not a vortex of depraved violence, and crime rates that already compare favorably to other big cities are trending downward. But as underscored in a new Citizens Budget Commission resident survey showing rising worries about crime, statistics don’t tell the whole truth either, both because of how we experience crime and because some numbers matter more than others.

The topline data paint one picture of reality. Citywide, most year-over-year trends were positive at the end of 2023; the trends are generally continuing this year. In this way, Mayor Eric Adams, who took office at the start of 2022, is slowly delivering on a core promise of his mayoralty, even if the city is generally not yet back to pre-pandemic levels of violence. Park Slope, an affluent neighborhood, happens to be even safer than the norm in this very safe city.

More significantly, very long-term trends are also positive. Thirty years ago, roughly when I moved to New York, there were way more murders, assaults and robberies (they’re down 80%, 80% and 32%, respectively). The 78th Precinct, which includes Park Slope and the corner where the stabbings happened, suffered five murders in 2022 and two in 2023, down 71% from 30 years ago.

But our brains and guts don’t operate either on year-over-year or 30-year timelines. They take in a sense of how our neighborhoods and blocks and commutes feel compared to recent history. Looking at the magnitude of crime increases or decreases over two- and five-year arcs in many ways gives us a more accurate read of how people are feeling in their day-to-day lives.

New York City is not a vortex of depraved violence, and crime rates that already compare favorably to other big cities are trending downward.

Last year, robbery complaints were up 33% in the 78th Precinct compared to five years prior, and up 35% compared to two years prior. Felony assault complaints here were 120% and 65% higher, respectively. Those increases are consistent with citywide trends: Last year, robberies were up 22% compared to two years prior and 30% compared to five years prior, and felony assaults up 21% and 37% over those periods, respectively. According to the NYPD, there’s been “a stubborn uptick of stranger assaults over the past three years.”

The categories of crime we zoom in on matter greatly too. Observers and journalists often cite either murder or overall serious crime rates as proxies for how dangerous a place is. Both have shortcomings. Though murders are the most severe and jarring type of violence, they are also relative anomalies. As for overall index crime trends, they can be dominated by a high volume of incidents that don’t matter that much to the way most people experience a place, like auto thefts. Instead, I often look to robberies and felony assaults, as well as misdemeanor assaults, because those are relatively large in number (add them up and you get more than 80,000 per year) and they affect people powerfully. 

All this helps explain why, in the recent Citizens Budget Commission survey, perceptions of crime throughout the five boroughs are much worse than they were in 2017, before the COVID pandemic pulled the rug out from so many people, places and institutions. In 2017, 7 in 10 New Yorkers said they felt safe walking alone in their neighborhood at night; by 2023, the number had shrunk to just 5 in 10. New Yorkers’ views are even grimmer outside of their own neighborhoods. The number of people who consider it unsafe to ride the subway at night jumped from 21% in 2017 to 54% in 2023. That’s likely because a handful of subway murders — more than 30 in the system since the start of 2020, which is more than the total in the 15 years that came before — and jarring assaults, along with too many people behaving erratically, are getting under the city’s skin in ways that outstrip their numbers. Underground, it’s generally very safe; the routine ride is highly highly highly unlikely to result in victimization or trauma, and many subway trips, to the contrary, reaffirm one’s faith in urban life.

According to the Citizens Budget Commission, perceptions of crime throughout the five boroughs are much, much worse than they were in 2017.

Some on the left blame disproportionate media magnification of a relative handful of terrible crimes for the disconnect. I can’t defend the fact that what bleeds almost always leads — it’s a lazy and unhealthy journalistic habit — but that long predated the public mood shift. Something else has been going on.

I suspect it’s that there are more people with stories of feeling rattled or unsettled, or seeing reports about terrible things happen in places they considered safe. In my nearly 30 years living here, I’ve seen both my brother and one of my best friends jumped and assaulted, in each case many years ago. Knock wood, I myself have never fed the crime statistics. But a few times, and only relatively recently, I’ve been bothered: hit on the shoulder by someone having a psychotic episode on the bus, slapped in the head by a group of teenagers looking for trouble in a subway station. 

I was physically unscathed; neither time would’ve likely even registered as a misdemeanor if the cops had gotten involved. Yet I was still shaken for days. I walked through the city differently. Knowing someone intentionally did something to hurt you or someone you love shakes trust. Even when it’s quantitatively rare, it is qualitatively different from other bad experiences.

We’re often told to hold two ideas in our heads at once. With crime in New York, two ideas are far too few. It is wrong to suggest gruesome crimes define this generally safe place. Still, violent crime, even at relatively low levels, remains up over recent history, and so is more inchoate disorder, and all that worms its way into the brains of real people, especially in the neighborhoods where it clusters. Politicians and the media didn’t singlehandedly pump this fear into the air.