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The New York Times: Most Major Crimes Are Down. Why Are Assaults Up?

Homicides, rapes and shootings in New York City have decreased, but the number of assaults has remained stubbornly high.

By Maria Cramer and Chelsia Rose Marcius

The New York Times

April 20, 2024

Just before noon last Saturday, a 9-year-old girl was with her mother at Grand Central Terminal when a man strode up to the child and, without warning, punched her in the face, according to the police.

The child, dizzy and in pain, was taken to the hospital. Jean Carlos Zarzuela, 30, a man who had been staying in a homeless shelter in East Harlem, was quickly arrested and charged with assault in the third degree, harassment and endangering the welfare of a child.

It was the second time in nine days that Mr. Zarzuela had randomly attacked someone at the terminal, the police said. On April 4, they said, he punched a 56-year-old woman in the face, causing her nose to bleed and her left eye to swell shut.

And it was among a number of recent assaults that have unnerved New Yorkers, who have seen a rash of attacks reported on the streets and on the subway.

Police leaders and Mayor Eric Adams have trumpeted sharp decreases in the number of murders, rapes, robberies and burglaries since 2022, when crime rates began to fall in the city following a surge of violence during the coronavirus pandemic. Most major crimes remain at a higher level than they were in 2019, but officials said the trend was a promising sign that the city is rebounding.

Still, assaults continue to vex police and city leaders. Felony assaults, a major crime category defined as an attack where a dangerous weapon is used or a serious injury results, are up in recent years. So are misdemeanor assaults, such as the one at Grand Central, in which a victim is punched, kicked or hit but no weapon is used.

In 2023, there were just under 28,000 felony assaults in New York City, an increase of about 1,650 from 2022. And the number is rising in 2024: The police reported 7,419 felony assaults through April 14, a slight increase from the same time last year. The number of misdemeanor assaults was up 7 percent through April 14 compared with last year.

“They’re almost impulsive acts,” said Kenneth Corey, former chief of the department. “Those are very, very difficult to police because of the very unpredictable nature of the action. It’s not the type of crime that the police can strategically deploy against.”

And it is their seeming randomness that unsettles New Yorkers, he said.

“Your chances of being a victim of a shooting in New York are very small,” Mr. Corey said.

But the number of assaults in the city is far higher than the number of murders or shootings. And even in a city of more than 8 million people, the possibility of being suddenly attacked without provocation has also begun to feel too real, he said — regardless of statistics.

“That’s not perception. That’s their reality,” Mr. Corey said. “That things are not as safe as they used to be.”

What is an assault?

Under New York law, misdemeanor assault is fairly simple: It is defined as intentionally striking another person, causing injury.

But an assault rises to the level of a felony when a dangerous or deadly weapon is used or when the injury is so serious that a person was at a substantial risk of death, is disfigured, is expected to experience long-term health problems or hurts or loses an organ during the attack.

A person can also be charged with a felony for striking public employees such as police officers or paramedics, even if a weapon is not used. Criminal justice specialists noted that the number of felony assaults began to rise after the State Legislature began classifying more public employees as victims of felony assault if they were struck.

Like other crimes in the city, the number of felony assaults has fluctuated over the past 20 years, falling to its lowest level in 2008, when the city recorded 16,284 such assaults. Amid some minor fluctuations, the number of misdemeanor assaults fell from 57,304 in 2000 to 33,400 in 2020. But that figure increased by 32 percent to 44,151 last year.

Officials noted some promising signs on the subway system, where about 1,000 police officers recently began patrolling and 1,000 members of the National Guard and the State Police were deployed after a surge in crime. Felony and misdemeanor assaults on the transit system both fell last month and are about the same through April 14 compared with last year, according to transit bureau figures.

What is driving the numbers?

It is unknown how many assaults in the city are truly random, according to the police, who say it is difficult to track the number of unprovoked attacks because investigators often learn later that the victim knew the perpetrator.

The police classify felony assaults under several different categories including domestic violence, attacks on the police, attacks on people over 65 and shootings. The remainder of the victims fall under the category of “other.”

Domestic violence incidents made up more than 40 percent of the felony assaults in 2023, according to the police.

Assaults on the police made up a little more than 8 percent of felony assaults. Shooting victims made up about 4 percent of the cases, while the number of assaults on people more than 65 years old was up nearly 8 percent.

Assaults on public safety officials have risen as the number of arrests has also increased. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority saw a jump in the number of attacks on its police officers and workers — from 23 assaults in 2019 to 65 in 2023. The assaults often happened when officers were stopping people from evading fares, an M.T.A. spokesman said.

“The increase on assaults on police officers isn’t surprising,” Mr. Corey said. Suspects, especially those arrested in cases of violent crimes, “are going to fight when they’re arrested.”

The persistence of domestic violence incidents as a driver of felony assaults is another troubling trend, and one that often leads to tragedy, said Nathaniel M. Fields, chief executive of the Urban Resource Institute. He pointed to an annual report commissioned the city, which analyzed domestic violence deaths from 2010 to 2022. In that time period, there were 420 cases in which someone was killed by an intimate partner. In 39 percent of those cases, the police had documented a domestic incident before the death, according to the study.

Maureen Curtis, the vice president of the criminal justice program at Safe Horizon, said she believed that there was not the same sense of urgency around domestic violence as for crimes that are more visible or are more likely to make headlines.

“As a society, we still don’t value domestic violence the way we do the other crimes,” she said. “People still don’t see it impacting them.”

What can be done to reduce assaults?

On Monday, Mayor Adams announced a plan to help find permanent housing for domestic violence victims living in city shelters with their children.

The plan, part of a $43 million effort to push gender equity programs in the city that would concentrate on women of color and people in the L.G.B.T.Q. community, would start with 100 families, he said.

The city’s study found that Black women were more than twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence homicides as any other racial or ethnic group.

The mayor’s plan is a good start, Ms. Curtis said.

Lack of permanent housing often leads victims of domestic violence to return to abusive partners, she said. “We still need to find more affordable housing for the thousands of survivors in New York City,” she said.

Mr. Fields said higher salaries and better working conditions for social workers who help domestic violence victims were also necessary. In March, Mayor Adams announced an agreement with the city’s human services workers that will give them a 9 percent raise over the next three years.

Addressing the city’s growing struggle with those with mental health problems is also critical, according to law enforcement officials.

On Wednesday, Kaz Daughtry, the deputy commissioner of operations, said the department would be deploying a squad of police officers with degrees or experience in clinical psychology and social work to the subways to identify people in crisis and connect them with services.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, called on Gov. Kathy Hochul and the Legislature to “make good on their earlier support for significant investments in mental health care — especially for New Yorkers who have been struggling, posing potential dangers to themselves and others.”

It was a call echoed by the police during a briefing with reporters this past week, where Joseph Kenny, the chief of detectives, described a series of “unprovoked attacks” in the precincts covering southern Manhattan.

Many of the perpetrators were homeless, he said.

“The majority of them,” Chief Kenny said, “seem like they need some kind of help with mental illness.”

Maria Cramer is a Times reporter covering the New York Police Department and crime in the city and surrounding areas. More about Maria Cramer.

Chelsia Rose Marcius covers breaking news and criminal justice for the Metro desk, with a focus on the New York City Police Department. More about Chelsia Rose Marcius.

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