The pandemic isn’t the only burden New Yorkers have been enduring. There’s also been a crime surge.
Did COVID cause that?
So many people out of work. Fresh stresses in everybody’s lives. The trauma of all that death and disease: Was a jump in violent crime as predictable as subway delays?
We should all hope so. In that case, crime should now be dropping sharply as more and more New Yorkers get vaccinated (28% have had at least one dose) and the city’s economy revs up again.
While we debate that issue and steel ourselves for the race to replace Mayor Bill de Blasio, here’s something to keep you on edge: The crime hike is real. Shootings doubled last year compared with the year before. Murders were up 45%. Though homicides dipped at the start of 2021, shootings still rose year over year.
But before you panic and move to Scarsdale, remember: Those increases come after decades of city crime decline. The raw numbers are still a fraction of what they were in the bad old days, meaning the 1980s and early-’90s when crack cocaine was everywhere and 9-millimeter semiautomatics first hit the streets. But for any cop or citizen, the COVID-era trend is unsettling, even if the base of comparison is historically low. Last year’s murder count of 463 was 143 more dead bodies than in 2019. (The record was a whopping 2,245 in 1990.) Shootings went from 777 to 1,531. And only heroic work in the city’s COVID-weary emergency rooms kept many of those shootings out of the homicide column.
It isn’t only COVID, of course, and it isn’t only New York. Police departments across America are reporting their own crime waves. Clearly, there have been lots of reasons to be nervous for those inclined that way. The Black Lives Matter protests and urban riots that dominated last summer. The anything-but-smooth presidential transition in the fall. The Capitol insurrection in January. The mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder. It’s all added up to a spike in anxiety even sharper than the rise in actual crime.
Rising guns sales, the usual measure of crime fear across America, don’t reveal much about the anxiety quotient in New York, where relatively few civilians are legally permitted to own firearms. But nonlethal devices like stun guns and electrified flashlights are also suddenly flying off the shelves.
“In 2020, sales of civilian-use TASER products like the StrikeLight were up 300%,” said Rick Smith, founder and CEO of Axon Enterprise, formerly known as Taser International, whose products are now standard police gear and making big inroads with crime-weary civilians. The StrikeLight is a combination flashlight-stun gun marketed for everyday civilian self-defense.
With a neuroscience degree from Harvard and an MBA from the University of Chicago, Smith cuts a unique figure among law-enforcement vendors. For one thing, he is frankly anti-gun. His 2019 book “End of Killing” argues that nonlethal weapons are the future of policing and personal security. “The gun is antiquated technology,” he writes, “and it is responsible for tens of thousands of senseless killings every year.”
“I’m not saying take away police officers’ guns,” he said in an interview. “But if we can give you a Captain Kirk phaser and it stops a bad guy more effectively than your gun can, would you reach for that first? Most police officers are open minded enough to say, ‘Yeah, maybe.’”
Shooting someone is a nightmare for a police officer, even when the shooting is justified. The current uproar over police killings has not made any of that easier. And for civilian shooters, the consequences can be even dicier. Study after study has shown that a gun in a home is far more likely to be used against a loved one than an actual intruder. In the face of a mental-health crisis, that gun is also a ready tool for suicide.
But at this time of rising crime and COVID-sparked anxiety, will people really arm themselves with nonlethal devices that shoot electrified darts instead of bullets?
If the fresh sales figures are any indication, apparently so.
“We have to win the hearts and minds of gun lovers,” said Smith, whose electric-weapons company has now expanded into body-worn cameras, high-tech holsters and a cloud-based digital platform called Evidence.com. “And we have to keep improving the product.”
In 2019, a federal court struck down New York’s ban on civilian stun guns. Currently, they are legal to carry and use, as long as it’s in self-defense, just like in 45 other states.
Smith said he hears constantly from people outside law enforcement who want to protect themselves but don’t want to own or carry a gun. “With COVID and all the rest of it,” he said, “they really don’t want to kill anybody. They just want to defend themselves and their loved ones.”
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.