For Emily Wilson, security came by car. 

A 28-year-old nurse practitioner from Manhattan, Wilson hadn’t had a vehicle in years — she’d always felt safe taking the subway. But that began to change last spring when the COVID-19 pandemic struck New York with startling force.

It was minor at first — Wilson watched as passengers boarded bare-faced despite mask mandates, for instance. But eventually it became more serious. Some people started smoking on the train, she said, or openly using drugs. 

Others got in violent fights with fellow riders. All this eventually pushed Wilson to buy her own car.

“Every single day I was noticing something,” she said. “People got really frustrated during the pandemic and were expressing their anger in all kinds of ways.” 

New York City remains fairly safe — last year’s spike in shootings and murders has largely leveled off, and overall, index crime has only increased by about 1% this year compared to 2020, according to the New York Police Department. Index crime refers to murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft.

Revelers celebrate the New Year in Times Square in New York on Jan. 1, 2020.

But people share anecdotes like Wilson’s with surprising frequency. And some wonder if even the perception that crime is rising in the Big Apple could hurt the city just as it bejewels itself ahead of its biggest tourist season — the glittering, garish holiday spectacle that begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, continues through Christmas and ends with the famous ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. 

“People definitely perceive crime to be an issue, which will have an impact on the city whether it’s true or not,” said Brian Higgins, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and the former chief of the Bergen County Police Department. “The crime increases aren’t across the board, but the ones that have increased are very high profile — murders, shootings, assaults, things like that.” 

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Not everyone is convinced this will dissuade tourists from the New Jersey or New York suburbs from making the city trip they may have canceled last winter during COVID’s darkest hour.

“I think people are fed up with the pandemic and want to go enjoy the holiday season,” said Joe Giacalone, another professor at John Jay who is also a retired NYPD sergeant. “And I don’t think much is going to keep them from going.”

"I think people are fed up with the pandemic and want to go enjoy the holiday season," said Joseph Giacalone, a retired sergeant with the New York City police and a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Daphane Simora, a Las Vegas travel agent who specializes in New York trips, echoed Giacalone’s comments. The uptick in crime rates throughout the nation hasn’t affected her clients’ plans, she said. 

“No one I’ve seen is being deterred,” Simora said. “Everyone just wants to get out and travel again.”

There’s still a rush to book trips to New York for big events like the Thanksgiving Day Parade, she said. And some are already planning their 2022 jaunts. 

Tom Turkey float at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Those who are worried about crime are typically first-timers who have never visited New York before. 

She tells them the same thing each time: “It’s the same as any large city — perfectly safe as long as you’re aware of your surroundings.”

Experts agreed, and said those going into New York for the holidays should take simple precautions like staying on well-worn tourist paths and keeping their eyes up.

“Get your heads out of your phone,” Giacalone said. “People who look alert are generally less targeted than those who aren’t. That’s what [criminals] look for.”

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‘A bit more New York’

Last year was hard on New York, to be sure.

The number of criminal incidents dropped to historic lows in 2020, the NYPD said. But the number of high-profile crimes surged — shootings rose to 1,531 in 2020, up 97% from the year before, according to NYPD statistics. 

Murders also jumped by 44% from 2019, to 462 last year. Burglaries rose by 42% to about 15,500, the NYPD said. And car thefts increased by 67% to more than 9,000 in 2020. 

Some of those numbers seem to have stabilized.

New York City police officers search people entering barricaded pens used to control crowds in New York City's Times Square in preparation for the ball drop on New Year's Eve.

The number of murders in October 2021 dropped by about 10% compared to October of last year, according to department statistics. The number of shooting incidents fell by about 5% in the month-to-month comparison. And the number of gun arrests made this year has jumped by about 14%, the department said. 

Police attributed this to their new “precision policing philosophy,” which experts said is a rebranding of old hot-spot tactics that focus law enforcement’s attention on high-crime areas. 

But not every measurable category has improved in the same fashion.

Overall index crime jumped by more than 11% this October compared to last October, the NYPD said. Burglaries and rapes fell significantly, but robberies rose by almost 16% and felony assaults increased by almost 14%.

The year-to-date statistics tell a similar up-and-down story. Murders were down by about 2% in the first 10 months of 2021, while burglaries fell by almost 22% over that time. 

But rapes and robberies each rose by about 2%, the NYPD said. And felony assaults have risen by 8% since 2020.

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Beyond the statistics, individual stories of 1980s-era violence — such as the late-June gunfight between several men in Times Square that injured three bystanders, including a 4-year-old girl who was toy shopping with her family — seized the public’s imagination and stirred dark memories of the “bad old days.”

That wave of fear swept into this year’s mayoral race, swamping liberal candidates who wanted to cut police funding and pushing into office Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain who painted himself as the law and order candidate.

Kristi Hayes, a Ridgewood resident who works at a New York marketing firm, said her company recently began paying for private cars to take employees home after 7 p.m.

Hayes said her boss, a longtime New Yorker, feels like the city has slipped back into the 1980s.

“I don’t feel any less safe,” Hayes said. “But the overall energy is a bit more ‘New York’ than it was before.”

Steve Janoski covers law enforcement for For unlimited access to the most important news about those who safeguard your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @stevejanoski 

Source: Asbury Park

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