News | West Harlem

After decade decrease, slight uptick in crime

After enjoying a year of record-low crime that capped a decade of decreasing rates across the five boroughs, New York City is currently enduring a mini-sized crime wave.

Locally, there has been a very minor uptick in crimes for 2010, though many experts argue that the increase over this short period, across the city, may not yet be significant enough to declare a trend.

According to NYPD data, in the 26th Precinct—which encompasses the Columbia campus as well as portions of Morningside Heights and West Harlem—there have been two murders and five rapes through April 18. In the comparable time span last year, there were no murders and three rapes. There were, though, six fewer robberies in 2010 to date, compared to 2009.

Despite these small jumps in local crime, the citywide murder rate is up 22.5 percent over the same period last year through late March. Twice as many murders occurred in Manhattan over the first three months of 2010 as during the first quarter of 2009. And Morningside Heights has not escaped unscathed. A fatal stabbing of a young child at the General Grant Houses in January drew citywide attention. Last Wednesday, Mohammed Nofal was fatally shot in the head outside a jazz club on 118th Street, and on Saturday James Williams, 30, was shot to death on 118th Street and Morningside Avenue—which falls in the 28th Precinct.

Some, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, have attributed the rising crime rates to budget cuts necessitated by the city’s ever-ballooning deficit. Despite the slight recent rise in crime, veteran analysts and members of the NYPD assert that the higher numbers represent a statistical fluctuation with little bearing on the city’s overall security.

“Crime goes up and down periodically,” said Jeffrey Fagan, co-director of Columbia’s Center on Crime, Community, and Law. “It is the long-term trends that should worry us or make us feel safer. I wouldn’t make too much of this increase until it becomes a sustained pattern that lasts for six months or more in the same neighborhoods.”

Fagan added that he thinks potential NYPD budget cuts will not significantly affect the safety of city streets. Under Bloomberg’s proposed budget, the Police Department would be unable to rehire 892 officers through attrition, and would cut overtime salaries by $25 million in 2010 and $50 million in 2011. “Crime is more responsive to what the police do than to how many there are,” he said.

One local NYPD officer, who wished to remain anonymous due to protocol, agreed that finances have little direct impact on security. He also dismissed claims that the crime rate is rising. “You can’t contextualize crime in a three-month period,” he said. “I know there have been more shootings in this period of the year but that doesn’t mean we have lost the war on crime. You have to look at over the course of one year or many years.”

Some neighborhood residents said they were not aware of any changes in crime patterns. Maddy Bassi, GSAS ‘11, said she “always feels quite safe” around her 122nd Street and Morningside Avenue residence. “I haven’t seen any crime in three years living here. I haven’t noticed any uptick.”

Claude Wampler, who lives on 111th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, said that recent incidents are not “symptomatic” of the neighborhood’s true nature. “I always feel very safe,” she said. “I have never been scared of the neighborhood.”

For more than a decade, the NYPD was lauded as a successful crime-fighting force as New York completed a dramatic turnaround to become one of the nation’s safest major cities. In 2009, the NYPD announced a record-low murder rate as the fewest homicides in a 12-month period occurred since the current tracking system was created in 1963.

But some politicians say that new times bring new challenges. City Councilman Robert Jackson, whose northern Manhattan district includes the Columbia campus, argues that prolonged local economic problems will encourage the crime rate to increase.

Jackson said he is worried that the city is headed for a nearly permanent state of debt—and perhaps higher crime rates—until Albany directs more resources towards the five boroughs.
He added, “When people are unemployed and getting desperate, they do things they wouldn’t usually do.”

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