On a cold January night, Miraida Gomez saw a routine errand go horrifically wrong. Sitting beside her sleeping baby, she waited inside the back of a parked SUV while her husband fetched her prescription at a pharmacy on East 198th Street in Bedford Park. She had grown up not far from the Bronx street dotted with neon-lit storefronts and corner bodegas.
The ordinariness of the setting would soon be forever pierced: first by gunshots, and then by screams from her daughter Catherine, who was days shy of her first birthday. A stray bullet had hit the left side of the baby’s jaw.
Gomez scrambled out of the car. After crying for help, she began administering CPR.
“I had an internal conversation with God,” she later recalled. “If you feel you want to take her, I accept it. If that’s not your plan, then help me keep her alive.”
At the hospital, Mayor Eric Adams showed up to express his sorrow and support. Gomez could think of only one request. Pray with us, she asked him.
More than any other New York City mayor since Rudy Giuliani, Adams has set high expectations when it comes to crime. A former police officer, he has made a mantra out of describing public safety as the “prerequisite for prosperity” and said that he will not consider himself successful “unless every New Yorker feels safe.”
Early into his mayoralty, he has sought to introduce a shift in the city’s approach to crime by expanding policing, appointing a deputy mayor of public safety for the first time in over three decades, and taking a hands-on approach of rushing to crime scenes and visiting subway stations at night.
But as Adams wraps up his first year in office, the city’s crime data over the past 11 months shows a mixed picture. New York City is facing a slowing economy, which has often been associated with increases in crime. And crime experts are still trying to fully understand the effects of the pandemic when it comes to public safety.
The question remains as to whether, and how quickly, Adams can lower crime as well as ease New Yorkers’ fears around it.
“The disruptions in 2020 didn’t just stop on New Year’s Day 2021,” said John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University who examines crime trends. “That kind of social disruption lingers for a while.”
Shootings and murders have dropped but other major crimes, including robberies, larceny and assaults, have risen over the last 11 months. Meanwhile, polls and interviews with residents across the city show that crime remains an urgent concern.
Parsing the data
As of Dec. 11, there were 405 homicides, a drop of 11% from 2021, and 1,240 shootings, a 17% decline compared to last year, according to crime stats.
Overall, major crimes — which include murder, rape and felony assault — are roughly 25% higher when compared to the same time last year.
“I would say that it’s encouraging that murders and shootings are going down,” said Elizabeth Glazer, a former federal prosecutor who runs Vital City, a nonprofit devoted to public safety policies.
However, she added: “It would be better if they were going down faster.”
Murders and shootings are still well above pre-pandemic levels.
Since taking office, Adams has rolled out a series of initiatives that have expanded policing. He has revamped the NYPD’s anti-gun units, appointed a gun violence czar, added subway patrols in partnership with the state, and most recently, directed police to take those living in public spaces deemed “unable to meet their basic needs” into hospitals for psychiatric evaluations.
“It feels a little like a Potemkin village, meaning we have announcements, but we don’t know what the results of those announcements are, for better or for worse,” Glazer said. “It is a very hard situation.”
Few criminologists expected that murders and shootings — which also rose in other major U.S. cities during the pandemic — would return to 2019 levels within the span of a year.
But what has been troubling, many say, is the sharp rise of other major crimes.
“Almost all aspects of violent crime continue to rise at an alarming rate — robbery, assault, burglary — both on the surface and in the subway,” said Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a nonpartisan research group.
Robberies and larcenies in the city both rose around 40% during the first half of 2022 over the previous year, well above that of the average increase across 26 cities, according to a report by the Council on Criminal Justice.
However, Aborn said he was “guardedly optimistic” that the NYPD would be able to stem the surge in robberies based on the decline in shootings and murders.
“The critical moment will be to stop the rise,” he said.
In a statement provided to Gothamist, Adams singled out certain measures of progress on crime while acknowledging that there is room for improvement.
“Reducing crime in the city won’t happen overnight, but thanks to the NYPD’s efforts, both homicides and shootings are down by double digits this year, we’ve removed nearly 7,000 illegal guns from the streets, and, last month, we saw major crimes drop, both above and below ground,” Adams told Gothamist in a statement.
He added: “Until every New Yorker is safe, there will always still be work left to do, but we are taking some of the biggest actions in years to protect New Yorkers. We will never stop fighting to protect the residents of this city.”
Some political observers have argued that the issue of crime leaves Adams, a centrist Democrat who is only the second Black mayor in New York City history, politically vulnerable on both sides.
“He can’t really win,” said Kimberley Johnson, a political science professor at NYU.
“For some people, nothing short of locking up every person who looks kind of scary will be enough,” she continued. “If we’re thinking about the left, anything that sort of hints at a crackdown is seen as a kind of betrayal of [Adams’] identity and the neighborhoods he comes from.”
Left-leaning lawmakers have criticized the mayor for retreating to so-called “broken windows” policing, which seeks to address serious crime by cracking down on minor offenses. The practice has historically led to excessive enforcement in communities of color.
In what criminal justice advocates say is a concerning sign, arrests and summonses in the subways have skyrocketed. Summonses for subway fare evasion in the first three quarters of the year jumped nearly 23% over the same period last year, according to a Gothamist analysis of summons data.
At the same time, comparisons of subway data across recent years are complicated by changing ridership patterns during the pandemic. After sharply falling in 2020, subway ridership has gradually started to climb back.
For some people, nothing short of locking up every person who looks kind of scary will be enough. If we’re thinking about the left, anything that sort of hints at a crackdown is seen as a kind of betrayal of [Adams’] identity and the neighborhoods he comes from.
Critics have also faulted the mayor for failing to sufficiently address the root causes of crime.
As an example, Adams’ recent mental health directive immediately raised questions about whether the city had sufficient resources, such as supportive housing, psychiatric beds, social workers and mental health programs.
Adams has contended the city will provide those necessary supports — although he has yet to provide details on such a plan amid budget cuts and hiring freezes.
“The infrastructure isn’t there,” said Tiffany Cabán, a Queens city councilmember and former public defender.
She pointed to the city budget, which will cut roughly $12 million from the Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division, a program under the city’s public hospital system that sends a team of trained specialists to respond to 911 mental health calls.
“We have to scale our solutions to the size of the problem we’re facing,” Cabán said. “And we have to lean into empirically proven research and data-backed strategies and solutions.”
The list includes increasing opportunities for low-income youth. Earlier in the year, Adams was praised for significantly expanding the city’s summer jobs program, which has been demonstrated to both reduce arrests for felony offenses as well as mortality rates among participants.
But policy experts have urged the city to add more slots as well as offer year-round job opportunities.
“The most vulnerable time for people getting involved in criminal behavior is when there’s not enough income,” said David Jones, who heads the nonprofit advocacy group Community Service Society.
Jones said he did not believe the program could be expanded to accommodate every applicant. Making it universal, he added, “would not break any budget.”
A battle of public perception
Experts say that untangling crime data from public perception can be difficult, especially during a moment when the pandemic has upended social norms and unleashed a host of anxieties.
Lawmakers have long debated the best measures to make the public feel safe. Earlier this year, the mayor’s office released the results of a large-scale survey that included a question on how city government could make neighborhoods safer. Asked to pick three choices, adults surveyed selected the issue of housing — which included tackling homelessness — most often. It was followed by sending mental health first responders instead of police officers to those experiencing a mental health crisis.
Increasing the number and presence of police officers came in third.
Despite the recent surge, crime levels remain far below that of the peak in 1990, when there were 2,245 homicides. Then-Mayor David Dinkins secured a record expansion of the NYPD.
Nevertheless, it’s a distant era for many New Yorkers. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, crime fell to historic lows between 2017 and 2019.
“The public has a very short memory,” said Joseph Viteritti, a political scientist at Hunter College. “They don’t remember David Dinkins. They can remember yesterday, a few years ago, maybe. And that’s the problem here.”
“They don’t have graphs in front of them,” Viteritti continued. “When they think about crime, they have pictures of people committing violent crime, and that’s what they go home with.”
Stories on crime in New York City have been covered closely by all the major news outlets, and at times they have garnered national attention. A Politico story last month cited data that showed that the number of stories about crime in New York increased by 42% over last year.
Adams, who has been criticized for talking too much about crime, has begun venting his frustration over media coverage on crime.
Speaking at an event last week hosted by the civic group Association for a Better New York, the mayor — who progressives have accused of stoking fears about crime — argued that stories about crime and dysfunction were hurting the city’s image.
“We have to tell our news publications: enough,” he said. “Don’t point out every scar we have.”
They don’t have graphs in front of them. When they think about crime, they have pictures of people committing violent crime, and that’s what they go home with.”
Victims of violent crimes often fade from public view even as the headlines linger in the public’s memory.
Catherine, the Bronx baby who was shot in January, survived. After three surgeries and initially being paralyzed on the left side of her body, she is recovering well. At nearly 2 years old, she’s like any toddler. She can feed herself. She enjoys riding a tricycle and singing Justin Bieber songs. Her curly black hair has grown over the scar on her head where doctors had to operate.
“She’s unstoppable,” said Gomez on a recent morning.
The 33-year-old mother of three sat inside her SUV, the same one where her daughter was shot. Moments earlier, she motioned to a dent in the backseat where the bullet had torn through. She wore a wool beanie cap embroidered with the letter C, a gift from the staff at Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan where Catherine was hospitalized.
Gomez has a lot of thoughts when it comes to crime. She has a master’s degree in social work and works for the city’s Department for the Aging. As a Bronx native, she also has a firsthand understanding of the generational cycle of poverty and violence. She expresses sympathy for the mayor, whose job she likens to that of a new teacher assigned a class of troubled students.
She bears no ill will toward the shooter. Imagining what she might say to him, she said: “You hurt my kid and I still don’t wish the worst for you. I wish you self-awareness.”
Eleven months later, police have not made any arrests in the case.
Gomez has managed to make sense out of a senseless crime. The shooting has brought her family closer, she said. And she now sees herself as someone who has been given a second chance. To be a mom to Catherine and to be able to watch her grow up.
Although Catherine does not remember what happened, Gomez plans to tell her someday.
Leaning back in her seat, a smile crept over her face as she thought of what she plans to say: “You defied all odds against you. You are huge.”