James Essig, the chief of detectives for the New York police department, stepped up to the podium to explain how the department had solved a crime.
Less than a week before, on 9 January 2022, just after midnight, 19-year-old Kristal Bayron Nieves had been shot to death in a botched robbery at an East Harlem Burger King where she had just gotten a job.
The security camera recorded a man wearing a ski mask. It didn’t show his face, but it did offer another crucial clue: a pair of white earbuds dangling from his pocket.
Using further surveillance footage from the street and the transit system, detectives tracked and identified a man in different clothes but with a similar gait, height and build – and white earbuds hanging down his side. He was arrested in Brooklyn, and charged with murder.
Despite the high-profile fanfare and police self-congratulation, however, the case was notable mainly for being an exception. The majority of shootings in New York City go unsolved, leaving families without closure and communities without answers.
Only 54% of murders resulted in an arrest in 2021, according to analysis by Vital City, a journal at Columbia Law School focused on pubic safety. For non-fatal shootings, the rate in New York City is even lower: only 35% last year.
In law enforcement, that number is known as the clearance rate – and it has gone down in recent years. In 2017, the NYPD cleared 76% of murders and 50% of non-fatal shootings. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, however, shootings surged across the country, and clearance rates plummeted.
Some public safety and law enforcement experts attribute that decline in part to a lack of trust in the criminal justice system, particularly in Black communities, after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
But as the new “tough on crime” mayor, Eric Adams, responds to the crisis by launching a much-touted crackdown, pouring more money into the police and creating special new units arresting people for low-level offenses, a new idea is gaining hold among those experts: could the strategy of simply making more arrests backfire – and make crime worse?
Or, put another way, could fewer arrests reduce crime?
The problem of overpolicing
Law enforcement’s ability to solve a crime, especially a violent shooting, is bound up with the relationship between a community and those who police it. Often, people with knowledge of a serious violent crime choose not to come forward.
Police and politicians often blame a “no-snitch” culture, but others say it’s more complicated than that.
“You’re not solving these crimes without relationships,” said Corey Pegues, a former NYPD precinct commander and executive. “Nobody wants to talk, especially in a community where there’s a fractured relationship with the police.”
It’s a vicious cycle: when fewer people cooperate, it’s less likely the police can close cases. And when the police close fewer cases, people are less eager to cooperate.
“If what you see is that you call the police, and they don’t come or they come late, or you call the police and they’re unable to solve the shooting and then you’ve exposed yourself, that’s not going to be your first instinct any more,” said Elizabeth Glazer, a public safety expert who is the former director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and founder of the Vital City journal.
This year, as the crime rate shot up, Adams and the NYPD stepped up enforcement. One of those efforts focuses on low-level quality of life crimes such as fare-beating, public drinking and gambling, which police claim are associated with violent crime. Another was Adams’s decision to reinstate controversial anti-crime units, disbanded after the Floyd protests and now rebranded as Neighborhood Safety Teams, tasked with getting guns off the streets.
Ever since, the NYPD has been making more arrests, but mostly for non-violent offenses, according to the mayor’s own office of criminal justice. Even the anti-gun unit is mostly making arrests for low-level offenses like possession of fake IDs.
Research shows that increasing (or, for that matter, decreasing) enforcement of non-violent offenses has little to no effect on crime rates, particularly in the short term. But increasing arrests for non-violent and lower-level crimes could, in the long run, have the opposite effect of what leaders say they intend.
Arrests “start a chain of events, which in most cases leave individuals with permanent criminal records even if they are later acquitted”, said Anna Harvey, a professor at New York University and director of the Public Safety Lab.
Minor violations often cause people to lose their jobs and make it difficult to find new employment or keep housing. Introducing people to the criminal justice system in the first place also increases the likelihood that they will reoffend.
What’s more, aggressive policing tactics can damage community relationships. Cities with more low-level arrests do not see lower crime rates – but they do tend to have more police shootings, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. Some fear that with the NYPD’s new initiatives, police violence is also likely to persist, undermining what progress has been made.
“There’s going to be another Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Omar Edwards,” Pegues said, referring to killings connected to plainclothes units. “The first time a cop shoots an unarmed person, any inroads you made, you’re gonna lose right there. You’re the one that brought this back. It’s your fault. It’s not going to be a good look.”
Picking people up for minor infractions, or putting them in danger by questioning them in public – which could make them a target for retaliation – can make it harder to clear cases, Pegues said.
“Communities are sandwiched between very real street violence and over-policing,” said the New York City public advocate, Jumaane Williams. “What they really want is their taxpayer dollars to pay for transparent policing, but they also want their dollars to keep and help them feel safe. And that hasn’t happened in a real way.”
Unprotected by police yet punished for carrying
There is one glaring exception to the more-arrest paradox, however: when shootings go unsolved. In marginalized communities with persistent gun violence, unsolved shootings fuel suspicions that police don’t care about Black and brown victims, according to a review of research conducted by University of Pennsylvania criminologist Anthony Braga.
“Trust in the police erodes, undermining the willingness of community members to share information on suspected shooters,” Braga wrote in a July 2021 report.
Studies have also shown that young people are more likely to carry firearms in communities with higher rates of violence, particularly when they don’t trust police to be fair.
The same is true in New York City. The pervasiveness and unpredictability of violence was the major driver of gun-carrying, according to one report by the Center for Court Innovation, which was based on interviews with 330 young people, mostly Black and Latino, ages 16 to 24 who were living in neighborhoods with high gun violence rates. The lack of protection from police, and the fear of being shot by them, also contributed.
“The sense of a double-bind – unprotected by police from other gun users but punished for carrying to protect themselves – was a central feature of young people’s narratives,” the report noted.
“A lot of people mistrust the police because ‘the police are quick to harass me, but aren’t necessarily quick to protect me when I need them,’” said the center’s Haley Nolasco, the director of community-based violence prevention. “A lot of people are holding guns for those reasons.”
The same sense of danger also led them to gangs. The gangs provided protection, the interviewees said, even though joining increases the chance that they might be targeted by rival gangs, or become a perpetrator of gun violence themselves.
Even in a city with a heavily resourced police department like New York, which has a budget of more than $11bn, leaders have to decide where to put the money. Given a choice between low-level arrests or solving violent crime, experts say the police should prioritize the latter.
Improving clearance rates for shootings, Glazer said, is a “canary in the coalmine”. It can help improve trust in the criminal justice system by showing that community members can rely on the police to deliver justice – thereby preventing further violence, research shows.
“The effective investigation of shootings can help prevent further cascades of gun violence in cities by deterring retaliation and by incapacitating violent individuals who could persist in their crimes or end up as victims of retaliatory shootings,” Braga wrote in his 2021 review.
Interrupting that cycle takes investment: enhanced investigative resources, sustained investigations that last beyond the first few days after a shooting, and improved oversight, Braga found, basing his conclusions on a successful effort in Boston to improve clearance rates.
The NYPD has taken some of those steps, adding more officers to its gun iolence suppression division, which focuses on shooting investigations, and requiring all detectives to employ basic investigative techniques like canvassing, interviewing witnesses and victims and collecting evidence at the scene of a crime.
However, a greater number of officers have been added to the relaunched anti-crime units, which are tasked only with getting guns off the streets, not addressing why people are carrying guns in the first place.
“It all comes back to the thing that police should really be focusing their attention on: it’s not counting how many arrests they’ve made, but counting how many gun crimes are being committed,” Harvey said. “And ideally, they want gun crimes to go down while they’re making as few arrests as possible to avoid those collateral consequences.”
“The way in which the police gain trust is not by basketball games, cleanups and other things,” Glazer said.
“It’s by doubling down on trying to solve the cases, and building them, one by one, and building trust with victims and residents, one by one.”
Eric Adams has set up controversial new units and is arresting people for low-level offenses – but solving more violent crimes instead could rebuild trust