Remember that iconic Charles Bronson starrer “Death Wish” in which a decent family man, a professional architect, finds his life suddenly turned upside down when his wife and daughter are brutally attacked by violent elements on the streets of New York of the 1970s?
Something frightfully similar is happening today in this great city which, famous for its tall skyscrapers, tourist attractions, shopping, entertainment and glamour, the financial industry, etc, faces a crisis of confidence amid soaring crimes and incidents of violence, exacerbated by the availability of guns and other fire arms to criminals and other dangerous elements.
The resulting collateral damage is colossal — it is not just the innocent city residents who can suffer, but also businesses “which while making money, also pay taxes and create jobs”, as one Wall Street financial broker, insisting on anonymity, told this author.
In the 1980s when crime and violence ruled New York’s streets, US. Athletics, a popular footwear chain began having security problems. US. Athletics’ slogan — “shoes for you in the right size and at the right price” — had a popular ring among local and foreign visitors who missed the chain store after its closure.
The owner of US. Athletics wrote in 1990 to the city administration pointing out that its stores had been held at gunpoint 15 times alone in the previous year, besides suffering 25 break-ins and over 1,000 shoplifting incidents. In the letter, the owner threatened to close down his stores — he, finally, did that the following year.
Small businesses — trading companies, service providers, shops, eateries, tour operators, travel agencies, pharmacies, drug stores, etc — perform a vital role in the city’s economy as they provide jobs, pay taxes and serve local consumers and foreign tourists. Experts have urged the government to provide them greater support and protection against rising violence and crimes in the city.
Awash with guns
Critics say that New York is awash with guns. Though the official licenses given to gun owners are limited in numbers, a large unofficial market for guns flourishes. According to the New York Police Department, there are some 40,000 licensed gun owners who can keep a gun at home.
However, a disproportionately large number of unauthorised guns and firearms are in circulation in the city. The NYPD estimates that in the late 1990s, “as many as 2 million illegal guns were in circulation in New York City in 1993”.
The NYPD recovers approximately 7,500 guns annually, and generally believes that there is no reason to think that the total number of illegal guns is much smaller now than it was 30 years ago.
Politicians have been debating how to protect New York’s small enterprises, residents and the hundreds of thousands of commuters who work in the city, not to forget the thousands of local and foreign visitors who pour into the city and use the public transportation.
There has also been a spate of violent attacks, particularly, against people of Asian origin. They all need protection against violent offenders — be it on the streets, the subway trains or tourist spots.
Then there is the category of mentally-unstable violent offenders; there have been cases of such persons walking toward unsuspecting elderly persons on the streets, throwing them to the ground and beating them, or pushing innocent commuters waiting at subway platforms onto the tracks before an approaching train.
New York City mayor Eric Adams, who during the election campaign had promised to fight crime in the city, recently joined the New York State Governor Kathy Hochul to announce a plan to combat the rising crime rate and risks for subway commuters by deploying an additional 1200 police officers at stations and trains.
The New York subway system, one of the world’s largest and oldest with 472 stations and 665 miles of track, transports over 3.5 million commuters every day. .
John Kosovich, a bank employee who travels from Flushing to his workplace in New York City, said he took comfort from the presence of police on trains but thought the plan would be successful only if the police demonstrated an “active presence” on the train and not just stand at the door.
While the city’s subway transport system is an important economic artery of the city, it has also become what cynics describe as the “death trap” for many innocent people; the incidents of theft on the subway lines had soared by a staggering 63%, while robberies increased by 33% and felony assault by 18% until October 2022. The NYPD also reported nine murders on the subway transport system — up from six in 2021.
But guarding stations and trains is different from maintaining police surveillance in a single neighbourhood or on a group of criminals who can be targeted and rounded up.
NY transit system
New York’s transit system defies regular community policing tactics because it is not a community but a huge system on the move all the time. Indeed, questions about the plan’s effectiveness were raised following violent incidents just after the plan’s announcement.
Violent incidents can also adversely affect the inflow of foreign tourism, an important source of the city’s revenue. According to the New York Comptroller’s office, tourists spent $47 billion per year in New York before the pandemic. Tourism planners fear that both local and foreign tourism could be affected if violent incidents are not checked.
New York City also hosts international conventions and trade shows, and major athletic events such as the New York City Marathon and the US. Open; the tourism industry is a vital component of the city’s economy, supporting more than 376,800 jobs (representing nearly 10 per cent of all private sector employment).
New York’s politicians should not forget that a city cannot prosper if its reputation is tarnished by crime, violence and other social maladies.
Manik Mehta is a New York based journalist who covers foreign affairs, United Nations, US politics, global economics, business and sociocultural issues.