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Painting a Distorted Picture of Crime ‘Spikes’ in New York City

Murder rates are at an all-time low in Brooklyn, but one would hardly know it reading the New York Times.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.

Throughout New York City, every felony crime the police department reports is down from this time last year. Murder is down 6.4 percent, rape is down 0.7 percent, robbery is down 4.3 percent, felony assault is down 0.3 percent, burglary is down 12.5 percent, grand larceny is down 3.2 percent, and grand theft auto is down 7.3 percent. Yet a series of pieces in the New York Times is cherry-picking crime data to show a “spike” that is more outrage-bait than empiricism-driven journalism. 

Over the last five months, Ali Watkins has reported three separate times on upticks in crime in Brooklyn, centered in the northern part of the borough—a trend that runs counter to the city’s unprecedentedly low crime rate. She has identified “pockets” of crime that show “spikes” in murders and gun crimes in neighborhoods under the watch of District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, who has taken actions—like not prosecuting certain drug offenses and relying on diversion programs—that have upset police leadership.

But Watkins’s coverage moves the goal posts and relies heavily on simplistic police narratives. She first reports on an increase in homicides in Brooklyn, but when those decrease, she narrows in on murders in North Brooklyn. When those also go down, the reporting zooms in on two precincts—all while letting pro-police voices drive the narrative that there’s a worrying “spike” in crime. These articles are a study in how not to report on crime, given that such reporting will most likely influence how authorities police Black and Latinx neighborhoods.  

Watkins did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.

In early April, Watkins reported there was a “murder spike in Brooklyn,” telling the reader that “as of March 24, the borough had recorded 28 homicides so far this year, compared with 17 in the same period last year, a 64 percent increase.” A 64 percent increase in murder is, on its face, a big deal and could scare lawmakers and the police into action. But the piece hedges on whether this spike is notable or just an aberration. A lengthy “to be sure” section acknowledged that the data was an extremely thin premise from which to draw conclusions: “Crime rates rise and fall periodically and it is too early to tell if the increase in killings foretells a new crime wave that would challenge the sense of security that has become part of the city’s identity,” Watkins hedges. “Over time the increase may be offset by quieter periods, and trends that appear worrisome in March often level off by August.”

Lo and behold, by August, the aggregate murder rate in Brooklyn was down 12 percent. And Watkins’s Aug. 8 piece moved the goal post: She now focused on “shootings,” which, she wrote, “are up 10 percent across northern Brooklyn for the year, and in some neighborhoods—like East New York and Crown Heights—they have doubled.”

All of these stats are true enough, but they omit important context. Shootings have indeed doubled in these neighborhoods, but the total murder rate in North Brooklyn is virtually unchanged (39 versus 38 in 2018); shootings in South Brooklyn are down 26 percent, and murder in South Brooklyn is down 32 percent from 2018. What was for Watkins, in April, a “murder spike in Brooklyn” is now a shooting spike in two precincts, and an overall decrease in murder in Brooklyn by 12 percent from this time last year.

In her reporting, Watkins also elevates police narratives, which blame Gonzalez for being soft on gun crime when shootings and murders go up but award officers credit when there is a decrease in both crimes. Watkins wrote in her May piece that since March, when police Commissioner James O’Neill and Gonzalez introduced an initiative to “crack down on gun crimes,” gun arrests have gone up 10 percent. “The police believe the approach is working, pointing to the department’s most recent crime statistics,” Watkins wrote. “Since peaking in March, shootings in Brooklyn have dropped. Murder numbers are returning to levels similar to the same period last year.”

It’s a can’t-lose scenario for the tough-on-crime narrative. Crime goes up in seemingly arbitrary precincts? It’s the fault of arrest-shy prosecutors. Crime goes down, it’s a new initiative advanced by the police and, if they play along, district attorneys like Gonzalez. Either way, the police and their approach come out on top. 

The reaction to Watkins’s reporting from reform-minded lawyers and commentators has been swift. As the Washington Post’s Radley Balko noted, Gonzalez—who pro-police voices harshly criticize in Watkins’s Aug. 8 story—was also DA in the relevant parts of Brooklyn that saw murders at an all-time low in 2018. Watkins omits this key context, and anti-reform innuendo is permitted to stand without challenge. 

New York Times Magazine writer and criminal justice reform expert Emily Bazelon also pointed out that police quoted in Watkins’s Aug. 8 piece blamed the rise in crime on diversion programs for young people. “I’ve yet to see *any* evidence from the police that diverting a small fraction of gun possession defendants from prison has caused more shootings. They keep saying it. Without showing a link,” Bazelon tweeted. If pro-police narratives implying a causal relationship between the use of gun diversion programs and an increase in gun violence are going to be permitted, pointing out no such relationship has been shown should, journalistically, be the bare minimum. 

Sometimes there isn’t a meaningful trend; there’s just noise in the statistics that can be selectively highlighted to paint a story that can undermine reform while calling on police to arrest more people—and see to it that those accused of gun possession stay in jail for longer sentences, both before and after trial. 

A single murder is one too many—and it’s more than useful to show the human face to needless gun deaths, as Watkins has done—but when reporting on trends in crime, selectively narrowing the scope of inquiry to one or two precincts over an arbitrary number of weeks to show a “spike” in crime does little more than mislead readers.