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by Peter Moskos

December 15, 2019

Murdered in the Park

Just last month, I swear I told my class, "People won't talk about crime until a cute white girl gets murdered." Tessa Majors, unfortunately, is that woman. Would her murder be getting as much press if she had been black? I doubt it. But who knows? Turns out not a lot college students of any race get robbed and killed. But that's not what I'm going to write about.

Nor am I going to write about that the murder weapon seems to have been a 4-inch folding knife. Why do I point this out? Because this is the exact kind of knife that was made legal just last year, against the advice of law enforcement, and heralded by some as a "heroic" and "a massive victory for justice in New York." Bravo.

Nor will I go into what Majors might have been doing in the park. Nor the shameful conduct of the SBA (union) President, Ed Mullins, in publicly releasing details of an in-progress investigation to make political hay.

Nor will I touch on the fact that the apparent robbers and murders are but kids, aged 13 and 14. "What can you do?" cops say, "Our hands our tied. They're kids and weed isn't enforceable anymore." That's bullshit, of course. They seem to have been causing trouble for quite a while. Cops could at least ask, "What are doing and where the hell is your guardian?" and take it from there. That's where the attention and proactive help needs to be focused. The problem is coming from inside the house. I guarantee it. But if nobody else dares go there, why should I?

 Cops, at least in theory, might have prevented this murder with proactive policing. But in doing so they might have become a media sensation. And not in a good way. If you were a police officer and you suspected these kids of previous crimes, would you risk stopping them on reasonable suspicion? In a park? God forbid the kid is uncooperative and runs. Or puts up a fight. With indignant Columbia students pulling out their phones and calling you racist?

For police, at least in terms of public relations -- and this is a current and real problem -- it's probably better to have a poor woman murdered that risk the public indignant public and political pushback from stopping a 13-year-old black kid on suspicion of criminal activity.

I'm not going to talk about any of that. Here's where I do want to go: the numbers. I like data. And when I looked at them in New York City, I see these kinds of robbery/murders are rare. Really rare. Particularly for women. And then for white women? It basically doesn't happen. But it did. and I guess that's the definition of news.

I took the UCR murder numbers [FBI Uniform Crime Reports] for New York City. I excluded "unknowns" for all the variables I'm looking at. That is not a moderate cut, particularly with regards to "offender 1 circumstance" and "victim 1 relation to offender 1." How much it matters? I don't know. But it does matter. But perhaps not so much to my main point, which is that this type of crime really is rare.

In the past 20 years -- since 2000 -- only 2(!) women under 20 have been murdered by strangers in a robbery. It's the not young who are at risk, but the old. Most women victims are over 50. Five of the 20 women victims were over 80 years old, which seems particularly bad. The last time a white woman of any age was killed by a stranger in robbery was 2015. Before that was 2011 and 2009. All three of the victims were senior citizens. The robber/killers were all in the 30s. One was white, one was black, one was hispanic.

Since 2012, there have been but 30 people murdered by strangers in robberies in New York City. Total. Last year just one person in New York was murdered in a robbery by a stranger. One. A 66-year-old Asian man. In 2017? Four. All men. Same in 2016. There haven't been more than 10 such murders a year in nearly a decade and not more than 20 such murders in a year since 2002. But in 1988, there there were 124 such victims! It really was a different city.

Since 1992 -- arguably when New York City started becoming safe -- there have been 28 murders of women (and 287 of men) by strangers in robberies. Yes. Total. Since 1992. In 8 different years since 1990, the number of women killed in robbery has been zero.

As to race, it seems that Asians are disproportionately targeted and victimized. But with that notable exception, victims or robbery/murders seem to reflect the demographics of New York City, at least generally. Offenders are disproportionately (but not exclusively) black men. For the women victims since 1992, 17 were white, 8 black, 2 Asian (1 unknown). Of their robber/killers, 17 were black, 10 white (1 unknown). Two women were murdered by women.

Note the scale of the y-axis is much more magnified on the second picture.

My point is that this type of crime -- a woman being killed by stranger in a robbery -- is rare in New York City. No, not just for white women. And not just for women. So when something like this does happen, it should be news. No, not cause for alarm and the ever-feared (at least in criminal justice circles) "over reaction." But no, this shouldn't be swept under the rug. Because we don't want to go back to the days when the public lived in fear and people were literally being murdered by strangers in robberies gone wrong on a near daily basis.

Rest in peace, Tessa Majors.

November 19, 2019

Academic Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

Spread the word:

My department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration (LPS), has officially posted for three new full-time LPS positions. One of the lines is for a tenure-track assistant professor. Two of the lines are for full-time lecturer ( which is CCE, or the equivalent of tenure track).

Law and Police Science has not hired full-time faculty in many years, so to have three lines at once is very exciting and great news for the department. The job posting will remain open until the end of the year. The hiring will happen in the Spring, and the positions are to begin in the Fall of 2020.

To access them and apply in the CUNY System, go to: https://www.cuny.edu/employment/. Then click on "Search Job Postings," "Faculty," and look for ID# 21420 and 21421.

November 17, 2019

Violent, mentally ill, on the street: We need to do better than this

My op-ed in the Daily News:

Violent, mentally ill, on the street: We need to do better than this

Police officer Lesly Lafontant emerged form a coma yesterday after a bystander, Kwesi Ashun, somehow deemed it appropriate to beat Lafontant with a metal chair while Lafontant was trying to arrest Dewayne Hawkes, wanted on a warrant, after Hawkes had urinated on the floor on a nail salon.

Ashun was shot and killed by police. His death, not the beating a police officer, received the attention of a City councilwoman, who tweeted, ”My condolences to the victim and their family.” She wasn’t talking about the cop. Later, she talked of working “to bridge the divides.” As if when a man beats a cop nearly to death, the police are partly to blame.

Ashun had a record, including violent dealings with police. He was arrested for slashing a cop in 2004. Recently his family tried to get him help. “My brother was having a mental episode. He was very angry. He was spiraling [out of control]. They said he wasn’t a danger." Eleven days before the recent attack, a city Health Department “mobile crisis team” concluded Ashun wasn’t a threat to himself or others. His sister was told to call 911 but refused: “I wasn’t comfortable with dialing 911 on an ill black man. It was too dangerous. So I didn’t call."

The man who relieved himself in the salon, Dewayne Hawkes? Despite starting this mess, being wanted on a warrant, resisting arrest, and instigating a series of events that led to a cop in a coma and Ashun being killed, he was released on “supervised probation” without bail. What message does that give to police? Or to the people in the nail salon?

All serious mentally ill people need help; only a few are at risk of committing serious violence. The problem is New York City has hundreds of thousands of mentally ill and no way to treat them, particularly against their will. They bounce between hospitals, jails and homeless shelters. Some, like Ashun, end up dead. Others, like Randy Santos, will be in prison for the rest of their lives.

Santos had a long history of violence and strange behavior before being bailed out of Rikers by a bail-reform advocacy group; he now stands accused of having murdered four homeless people, a crime to which he has confessed. Santos’s mother tried to get her son help, but he chose to decline treatment. Perhaps that’s a choice that he shouldn’t have been allowed to make.

It’s actually not that hard to identify some of the people who need help. If your family tries to get you committed, perhaps you need be committed. Sure, we’d want an independent medical or psychiatric determination to make sure it’s not your family that is crazy, but it should be possible.

This part isn’t about bail reform; it’s not about police use of force; it’s not about affordable housing for the homeless. This is about people being hurt because families are unable to get help for their loved ones.

But there is a link to bail and criminal justice reform. And it’s not just a right-wing overreaction. Basically a few hundred people — a few hundred repeat offenders we can red-flag — are going to destroy the worthy gains of reform because we have no system to deal with them.

The plan to close Rikers Island calls for a 60% reduction from current low levels, and some of those 60% will be violent and mentally ill. They need help, and they’re not going to get it.

It behooves reformers and legislators to solve problems that are both inevitable and, if unaddressed, will doom reform efforts. The MTA is currently prohibited from banning repeat criminal offenders from the subway, even the few who push people onto subway tracks. New York judges are legally prohibited from considering a person’s “danger to the public” when setting bail. Public peace of mind requires it.

Current reform will further limit judges’ ability to hold people and, by design, restrict police officers’ authority to arrest. On Jan. 1, almost all misdemeanors and some felonies, including some robberies and burglaries, will become not-detainable offenses. Offenders are to be given an “appearance ticket” that requires pre-trial release.

We know that most of those are detained on low level crimes aren’t mentally ill or violent. But some of them are. If we won’t or can’t detain criminals and treat the violent mentally ill before they do harm, what is Plan B?

The severely mentally ill do not belong in jail. But they also don’t belong on the street. They need help for their sake and for ours.

Moskos, author of “Cop in the Hood,” is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

October 8, 2019

FOP Report: "Mismanagement of the BPD and its Impact on Public Safety"

I've read this so you don't have to. But you should. This is put out by Baltimore City FOP #3. So sure, take it with a grain of salt. But FOP #3 isn't like some other unions that tweet ill-advised statements that hurt the image of policing and their members. [cough NYPD's PBA SBA!]

In 2012 FOP #3 released "Blueprint for Improving Policing." It was far more right than wrong. It was ignored. Had it been followed, perhaps the 2015 riots wouldn't have happened. Then Baltimore would still be seeing declining crime and an influx of people.

In 2015 FOP #3 released an "After Action Review" of the riots that, again, was basically correct. As the Baltimore Sun put it: "If what the FOP reported is wrong, the Mayor and Commissioner need to prove it." Needless to say, they didn't. 

So in the context that this is not an ideological screeds but a union perspective put together by a consulting team (that's OK, even encouraged) consider some of the points in the FOP #3 report about the Mismanagement of the Baltimore City Police Department.

This is not a crime plan. (But it least it doesn't pretend to be.) The consent decree isn't a crime plan nor are reformers' proposals to reduce police violence crime plans. We need a crime plan. But this is about fixing the organization. The first step.

There is still a leadership problem: Officers fear proactive policing because of unjustified criminal prosecution by the state’s attorney. This isn't just "we don't want to be held accountable" griping. See, eg, this.

As to the consent decree, “police have not been informed or training in following the consent decree.” But the major issue right now is probably staffing, and that results in overtime which costs money and, when mandatory, low morale.

Hire people to fill vacancies instead of paying overtime. As to recruitment: train recruiters in how to recruit, conduct exit interviews, recognize exemplary employees, and pay past due recruitment bonus. Seems like common decency, much less common sense.

There is currently budgeted funding for 470 more police officer positions, plus 100 civilians. Standards should be higher. And pay and benefits at a level to attract good candidates.

There are currently only 634 officers assigned to patrol. That is just 70 officers for each of 9 districts! (And may include sergeants, light duty, medical, etc.) This is probably less than half of what it used to be. I read this and said, "can it be?" It can.

Back in 2001, just one district (of nine total)--my district, the Eastern District--had 265 total assigned sworn police officers. We had 130(!) working patrol officers for 3 shifts. And I’m just talking officers (not sgt's and LTs or light duty or medical). Violence went down.

Officer numbers are down because BPD has replaced only 80% of losses since 2001, for a decline of 850 police officers (to 2,480). This is 25%(!) reduction in numbers. And the trend has worsened since 2014.

And when numbers are down, you can't take officers from HQ or consent decree compliance or specialized units or the mayor's detail or the academy. So you pillage patrol, the so-called "backbone" of any police department. And that is what has happened. BPD needs a backbone.

October 4, 2019

Murder down for whites but not blacks

The 2018 murder rate is down from the previous two years, but higher than we’ve seen in 6 of the past 10 years. Last year's murder rate is the same as 2015. And 2009! And yet I keep hearing every year that violence is down. So what's this trend? And sort of related, why do some people insist on the “violence is down” message year after year, even when it's not true?

Yes, violence is lower than it was in 1991. Violence will hopefully always be lower than 1991. But that doesn’t mean violence is trending down year after year. If we keep starting the graph around 1991, violence will always look downward trending.

The murder rate in the US actually peaked in 1980 at 10.2 (per 100K). And then there was the lesser but better-known crack-trade-related murder peak of 1991 (9.8 per 100K). So we’re down from there, no doubt.

Violence plummeted in America between 1994 and 1999. It might be worth pointing out that is right after the Biden-supported and now maligned crime bill. I don’t actually think that’s why crime went down, but it does correlate. And it didn’t hurt. It might have helped.

Whatever the causes -- and I do think better policing (along with changes in drug dealing) was a huge part of the solution -- many lives were saved between 1994 and 1999. Of course, as always, there were racial disparities. Blacks benefited most from the decline in violence. From 1994 to 1999 the number of black murder victims dropped from about 12,000 to 7,000 per year! White murder victims declined, too (but less so, from 11,000 to 8,000). This brings us to 1999.

Since 1999, the murder rate for whites has dropped even more, another 20%. Great news! But not for blacks. In absolute numbers, more blacks were murdered in 2018 than in 17 of the past 20 years. That's not a good trend. For African Americans, murder has been up and down over the past 20 years. But the murder rate is no better in 2018 than it was in 1999.


What bother me is some of my friends who insist “violence is down” are well intentioned white people who live in safe neighborhoods, hashtag #BLM, and believe those who advocate less policing in other people’s neighborhoods. (Neighborhoods they won’t set foot in, mind you.)
Yes, violence is down compared to 1991. But is it a sustained "trend"? Not really. Not if you start the clock in 2000. And not for non-whites. Not for young black men in particular. So when people say violent crime is down, ask "For whom?"