The mayor has called it a “public health crisis” and is pushing for police reform to tackle illegal arms trafficking.
New York City has not mourned the death of two on-duty police officers killed at the same time since 2014. On Friday, two 20-something Latino police officers — the force is increasingly ethnically diverse, following a predominance of Italian and Irish American officers in previous years — responded to a residence in Harlem after a call from a woman being threatened by her son. Using an illegally rigged gun stolen in Baltimore, the man fired at Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora, 22 and 27 years old respectively. The first officer died almost instantly; his colleague succumbed to injuries in a New York hospital on Tuesday The killer, who had a prior record of run-ins with the law, died Saturday from head injuries after he was shot by the two officers and a third policeman who tried to ward off the attack.
The ambush of officers Rivera and Mora was the latest incident in a week where two other officers were shot in a climate of growing insecurity, which Mayor Eric Adams, a police officer for decades called a “real public health crisis.” Since the mayor took office in January, there have been additional victims of armed violence, including Kristal Nieves, a Puerto Rican cashier killed during the robbery of a hamburger restaurant in East Harlem where she worked, and an 11-month-old baby hit by a stray bullet while resting in its mother’s arms in a car. A makeshift altar filled with flowers, teddy bears and balloons has been set up outside the fast food chain restaurant where Nieves died on 116th Street, and it grows bigger every day.
Although violence has been on the rise during the pandemic both in New York and in other big cities across the country, it seems like a sinister twist of fate that this wave should come early in the term of a former New York Police Department officer and captain (in a police force of 35,000 officers, the largest department in the country). Adams won the June election with a promise for a safer city, a city that now finds itself face to face with these killings. In a long televised statement on Monday, Adams presented details about his plans for police reform. “We are dealing with a wave of violence,” Adams said.* This violence is palpable in the city’s subways although for different reasons. It is a shelter for many homeless people with severe mental problems, including the individual who randomly pushed a 40-year-old woman onto the tracks two weeks ago; she died when she was hit by a subway train.
But the steady stream of shooting deaths, fueled by the influx of illegal weapons into New York from southern states and the Midwest has added a qualitative dimension to the statistics and accelerated a political response. “We will not surrender our city to the violent few. The prerequisite to prosperity is public safety and justice. There is no time to wait,” Adams stressed. Among other measures, the mayor announced the deployment of more police to the subway — currently 1,000 uniformed officers patrol it daily — and to the 30 police precincts where 80% of the latest episodes of violence are concentrated. He also promised to bring back a unit trained to detect firearms and remove the guns from circulation, which Adams’ predecessor shut down in 2020. The difference is that the officers involved previously were plainclothes officers, but Adams no longer wants them to be invisible.
Other thorny issues including the uncertain future of 250,000 young people between 16 and 24 who waste time in the city’s neighborhoods which serve as haunting grounds for gangs and organized crime; the risk of a city that is increasingly policed (a threat particularly for the African American and Latino communities); the need for resources to comprehensively address the integration and mental health of homeless people; and the reform of criminal justice loom over Adams’ plans like tombstones. The only consolation is that the city had only 488 homicides in 2021, compared to the 2,000 that were recorded every year in the early 1990s.
*Editor’s Note: This quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.