One was thrown in front of an incoming subway train in Times Square. The other was shot over a few dollars at a burger joint.
These recent violent deaths of women in New York have set off alarm bells and brought back grim memories of when America’s largest city was a dangerous place to live.
Michelle Go, a 40-year-old Asian American, died last Saturday when a 61-year-old, who was homeless and dealing with mental health issues, shoved her in front of a train pulling into the station.
On January 9, a 19-year-old woman of Puerto Rican origin, Krystal Bayron-Nieves, was fatally shot during a robbery in the East Harlem Burger King where she worked. The assailant took about $100 from the till and shot her as he fled.
The deaths have convulsed the city, which initially had been America’s ground zero in the pandemic, then posted an economic and social rebound — only to see streets, restaurants, theaters and other public places empty out again because of the raging Omicron variant of the virus.
Police say that last year 488 homicides were recorded in the city of nine million, 4.3 percent more than in 2020. They are up sharply compared to the level five years ago.
“The number is small but concerning because there is an increase and we do not want to go back to where we were 25 years ago. We had a homicide rate that was four times more,” said Jeffrey Butts, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is part of City University of New York.
400 million guns
Butts said the fact that America is awash with guns — there are an estimated 400 million of them in the country, more than the population — makes it prone to deadly violence.
“People don’t know how to navigate their frustrations and conflicts with one another. And when there’s a gun involved, it turns deadly,” Butts told AFP. He noted that at the start of the pandemic there was a spike in purchases of firearms.
Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a non-profit organization that works to improve public safety, said there is a combination of factors behind the rise in violent crime, including burglary and rape.
Besides the widespread availability of guns — and the pandemic, which hit especially hard in poor, mainly non-white neighborhoods — protests that broke out nationwide against racism and inequality after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 have also led to a rise in violence.
And reforms in recent years of the US penal code to introduce changes like lower bail and less harsh sentences for non-violent crimes “also found its way into the violent crime space,” Aborn said.
“It had an unintended consequence of sending a message that the criminal justice system was no longer going to respond to violent crime,” he said.
After the death of Go, authorities have also taken a new look at the link between crime and mental illness, especially among homeless people. It is common for them to seek refuge in subway stations during the cold months, and now because of high Covid infection rates in shelters, there is sometimes no other place for people to go.
Even New York’s new mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer who was elected on a pledge to fight crime, said this week he does not feel safe in the subway.
“I don’t want the knee-jerk reaction of going through our subway system and going through our streets and demonizing those who have slipped through the cracks and did not receive the mental health treatment that they deserve,” Adams said Tuesday at a vigil for Go.
Adams said he will station more police in the subway system, used daily by millions of people.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul promised to build 100,000 affordable housing units over the next five years to fight homelessness in the city.
“We just have to build solutions that go beyond law enforcement, because we cannot rely upon policing alone,” said professor Butts.