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Murder, auto theft increased statewide as pandemic played a role

Nassau County crime scene investigators probe shell casings

Nassau County crime scene investigators probe shell casings near scene of shooting at Luigi's Italian Deli at 95 Unqua Rd. in East Massapequa that occurred on March 6. Credit: James Carbone

ALBANY – The number of murders statewide increased 48.7% last year compared with 2019 and auto thefts rose 53.6%, according to annual statistics released Wednesday.

Overall crime, including violent and property crimes, rose 1.2% statewide in 2020, while violent crimes alone rose 0.7%, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services report.

Murders in New York City increased 46.7%, auto thefts rose 67.7% and burglaries increased 41.2% in 2020. Analysts said the COVID-19 pandemic likely spurred more crime.

Outside New York City, including Long Island, murders rose 51.2%, auto thefts rose 42.9% and burglaries rose 2.2%, according to the report. A county breakdown of crime statistics wasn’t immediately available.

Before the 1.2% increase in overall crime statewide last year, crime had declined by 25.8% from 2010 to 2019, according to annual reports of the state Division of Criminal Justice services. That includes a decline of 3.8% from 2018-19; a decline of 4% from 2017-18; a decline of 3.7% from 2015-16; and a decline of 4.8% from 2013-2014, according to the state website.

By the numbers, murders statewide rose in 2020 to 843 from 567 in 2019. Total violent crimes were 70,323 in 2020, compared with 69,864 the year before. In comparison, there were 866 murders statewide in 2010 and 770 in 2011 before the steady decline began, according to a December reporter by the Division of Criminal Justice Services.

In New York City, there were 468 murders in 2020, up from 319 in 2019; and there were 47,959 total violent crimes compared with 47,821 in 2019.

Outside New York City, there were 375 murders in 2020 compared with 248 in 2019. There were 22,364 violent crimes outside New York City in 2020 compared with 22,043 in 2019, according to the state report.

The relatively small increase in overall violent crime was reduced in part by a decline in rapes and burglaries. Statewide, there was a 17.1% drop in rapes and a 3.3% decline in robberies. There were similar declines in New York City.

The rise in violent crime in New York City has become a major issue in the mayor’s race and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said crime in New York City is the biggest obstacle facing the city and state in recovering from the pandemic and the economic shutdown associated with it.

SUNY Cortland political science professor Robert J. Spitzer, who researches crime, said the increase in murders is likely caused by a number of factors. He cited a surge in gun purchases — mostly handguns — that put more firearms in circulation, the disruption of society by the pandemic that increased unemployment and closed schools, and "the breakdown in police-community relations, spurred by the decline in trust in police and turmoil within police forces focused at least in part on dismay over police shootings."

The pandemic also suspended community anti-violence programs which could head-off conflicts in meetings or dampen tension in door-to-door visits, he said.

Police unions and Republican officials have blamed the rise in violent crime in recent months on the 2020 bail law adopted by the State Legislature. That law ended cash bail for most defendants, although judges still have some discretion in holding suspects determined to be most dangerous.

Assemb. Mike Reilly (R-Staten Island), a former New York City police officer, said Democratic policies, including the bail law, have "created what has essentially become a revolving door for criminals to commit crimes repeatedly with no repercussions."

But others challenge that argument. "It’s absurd to suggest that a change in New York bail practices somehow led to the shooting surge we’ve seen in cities across the country, not only New York City," said Jeffrey Butts, research professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "I doubt the officials posing this explanation even believe it. It’s just an opportunity to score political points against a law they would oppose whether it was effective or not."

FBI statistics show increases in murders in most major cities around the country in 2020, not just in New York.

In New York, the state Office of Court Administration is scheduled to release the first statistical report on the impact of the 2020 bail reform on July 2. There will be annual reports from the courts and the Division of Criminal Justice Services after that to monitor the impact of the bail law, which is required by the legislation.

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