On Friday evening, Mayor Eric Adams stood at the corner of East 198th Street and Valentine Avenue in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx, where days ago a baby girl had been shot in the face by stray gunfire. It was the third vigil the mayor had attended in the span of a week, beginning with one in Times Square for a woman who was pushed to her death on the subway tracks.
Underneath the bill of an NYPD baseball cap, the mayor’s face looked careworn. But his voice expressed a mix of anger and resolve.
“So why am I out here today?” Adams said, speaking before a crush of TV cameras. “Because I want to be loud and clear: generals don't send their troops into battle. They lead their troops into battle. I must be on the front line of this violence.”
Less than two hours later, he was tested with another tragedy: a shooting inside a Harlem apartment that left one police officer dead, and another clinging to life.
Listen to WNYC's People & Power reporter Elizabeth Kim discuss Mayor Eric Adams' major challenges in fighting crime:
As he enters only his fourth week in office, Adams faces a boiling crisis that political observers say will make or break his legacy. A retired NYPD officer, Adams has staked his mayoralty on bringing down crime, the signature pledge of his campaign. And with each violent incident that passes, the pressure is mounting on him to deliver an effective response.
But there are unprecedented hurdles. Experts say the economic and social upheaval wrought by the pandemic as well as the racial reckoning around policing in Black and brown communities will make the challenge of battling crime more complex for him than previous mayors.
In making public safety the centerpiece of his administration, Adams, a centrist Democrat who is the city’s second Black mayor, finds himself in a similar position as Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican and former prosecutor who was elected in 1993 after crime in the city soared to all-time highs.
“More than anybody since Giuliani, he will be judged by how well he does with [bringing down crime],” Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College, said of Adams. “Because he practically wore his police uniform when he was campaigning.”
On Saturday, Adams said he was planning to issue a “blueprint” soon on how he plans to tackle violent crime.
Viteritti said New Yorkers are becoming impatient.
“If we keep seeing incidents like we saw on the subway the other night, his credibility is going to begin to decline real fast,” he said.
The ongoing pandemic, however, has complicated the battle against crime. New York City suffered steep job losses during the height of the outbreak, and economists have argued that there is a correlation between economic instability and crime rates.
New York City’s jobless rate, which was 8.8% as of December, is more than double the national average.
“If you really want to improve public safety and the quality of life, you have to be fully committed to returning to full employment as soon as possible,” said James Parrott, an economist with the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.
Parrott said the mayor needs to “pull out all the stops” to retrain workers in sectors like hospitality and brick-and-mortar retail that may never fully rebound. The toll has been disproportionately felt by low-wage workers, who are predominantly people of color, and exacerbated a sense of inequality, he added.
“The economy and workers have changed in so many ways,” he said. “We can't have a policy that just leaves it to the labor market to heal itself.”
Covid has been also blamed for giving way to multiple social crises, from an increase in the number of New Yorkers living on the street and a rise in mental health issues.
Hate crimes are also up, especially among Asian Americans. Although police have said there were no signs that Michelle Alyssa Go, the woman pushed to her death on the subway last Saturday, was targeted because of her ethnicity, the attack rattled the Asian American community.
“I know people are really scared, people in the Asian American community, and many New Yorkers,” said U.S. Rep. Grace Meng of Queens during the vigil ceremony on Tuesday.
So far, Adams has ordered more police officers to be deployed to the subways as part of a plan with the state. The joint plan includes dispatching mental health professionals into the system. But hirings have yet to begin. On Friday the state released requests for proposals for community groups to respond.
Gun violence has abated in some neighborhoods but persisted in the Bronx and parts of northern Manhattan, where earlier this month a 19-year-old woman working at Burger King in East Harlem was fatally shot during a robbery.
In 2021, gun arrests citywide were up 6% over the prior year and 34% compared to 2019, according to crime figures. However, shootings have soared in other major U.S. cities, suggesting a national trend related to the pandemic.
The gun used by the Harlem shooter was a Glock with an additional magazine capable of firing upwards of 40 additional rounds. It had been reported stolen in 2017 from Baltimore, police said.
“Adams has to start thinking about how to disrupt the supply of guns to the street,” said Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia Law School professor who studies policing. “We can't arrest our way to safety any more than we could arrest our way out of a drug epidemic.”
The situation stands to worsen in the spring, he added, when the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a ruling that would make it easier for people to carry guns in public.
Gun laws in New York City are among the strictest in the country. With only a few exceptions, a city resident who possesses a firearm must have a license issued by the NYPD, which can take over a year to obtain and is often granted only under the most stringent of circumstances.
The Brooklyn district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, has attributed 70% of guns seized to coming from southern states that have looser gun buying restrictions. However, some law enforcement members have argued that illegal guns circulate for years in the city and that crackdowns on smuggling have limited impact.
Although the recent spike has alarmed experts, the current level of crime in New York City is nowhere near the highpoint of 1990, when there were more than 2,200 murders. Citywide, there 488 murders last year.
Mayors have generally responded to crime by increasing police. During the early 1990s, David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, secured additional funding from Albany to increase the city’s NYPD ranks to reduce crime. The move was later credited with initiating a decline in the crime rate. Crime levels plummeted under Giuliani, a two-term mayor who oversaw a crackdown on low-level offenses as well as the development of CompStat, a database system that tracks crime statistics trends.
But many people have since recognized that the drive to bring crime down had negative consequences, including a high number of people who were sent to jail for misdemeanors and the excessive use of stop-and-frisk tactics that revealed racist policing patterns. Stop-and-frisk exploded under Giuliani’s successor, Michael Bloomberg, creating a chasm that further divided minority communities and the NYPD.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran on a campaign of ending stop and frisk, saw crime fall to historic lows under his tenure, although it will also be remembered for the fatal police chokehold that killed Eric Garner, who officers were trying to arrest for selling loose cigarettes.
Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, said Adams needs to strike a balance. “We need to remain very focused on driving down violent crime,” he said. "We also need to understand that while we need to respond to nonviolent crime misdemeanors, accountability does not have to equal jail, but a lack of accountability can equal lawlessness.”
Aborn said he believes Adams, who he has known for more than two decades, can bridge two different eras of policing. While the mayor needs to get ahead of the crisis, he said, “I would rather see a well-thought-out plan, than a plan rushed to fill the moment.”
Adams has so far not indicated that he will expand the city’s police force, which has an operating budget of $5.4 billion. He has instead said he wants to make the NYPD more efficient as well as take a holistic approach to crime that involves investment in communities of color. He’s also leaning on the federal government for support, lobbying for more gun restrictions and urging Congress to pass the now stalled $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act. If passed, funds would be earmarked to states with cure violence programs, such as those found in New York City.
At the same time, the mayor has embraced approaches unpopular with progressive Democrats. He has said stop-and-frisk, which he opposed as a police officer, can be fairly implemented with better training and says he will reinstate a controversial plainclothes unit targeting gun violence. He has also called on state lawmakers to revisit bail reform, which eliminates bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.
Adams has insisted that he wants to balance public safety with justice.
“I’m the right person for this moment,” he told reporters at a news briefing Saturday.
He later attended another vigil outside Manhattan’s 32nd Precinct for the fallen officer, Jason Rivera, a 22-year-old Inwood native, and his critically injured partner, Wilbert Mora.
But among some New Yorkers in neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by gun violence, the debates between lawmakers can feel remote.
In spite of the frigid temperatures, Friday night’s Bronx vigil drew a small crowd of residents. One mother stood with her two bundled children in two, one nestled by her waist and another in a stroller. Even after the mayor left, she and many others remained until the very end, when one of the vigil attendees led them in singing “Happy Birthday” to the victim, who turned 1 that day and was expected to undergo an operation for her injuries.
The street is dotted with brightly-lit bodegas and storefronts, including a Citibank. But Soldalin Garcia, a 47-year-old who has lived in the area for nearly 30 years, recalled numerous violent incidents. On some nights, she can hear gunshots.
Garcia praised Adams for being “involved.” But she also expressed skepticism, saying, “They’re all the same when they start. When you start a new job, you want to show up.”
She said her favorite mayor was Giuliani, whose association with former President Donald Trump tarnished his reputation. She added she didn’t care if the remark got her in hot water with other New Yorkers.
“Rudy Giuliani was the guy," she said. "Because I felt safe."
The article has been updated to correctly reflect the spelling of Soldalin Garcia's name.