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Media’s Crime Hype And Scapegoating Led To Crackdown On Unhoused People

New York City, New York – For some time now, news media have been conflating crime, homelessness and mental illness, demonizing and dehumanizing people without homes while ignoring the structural causes leading people to sleep on subways and in other public spaces. With New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ latest announcement that he would hospitalize, against their will, unhoused people with mental health conditions—even those deemed to pose no risk to others—in the name of “public safety,” the local papers once again revealed a propensity to highlight official narratives and try to erase their own role in conjuring the crime hysteria that drives such ineffective and pernicious policies.

Adams, who made fighting crime the centerpiece of his 2021 campaign, announced his latest plan on November 29, his latest in a series of pushes to clear unsheltered people from the streets and subways of New York City. It would loosen the current interpretation of state law, which allows police and other city workers to involuntarily hospitalize people with mental illness only when they pose a “serious threat” to themselves or others. Now, Adams declared, those also eligible would include:

The man standing all day on the street across from the building he was evicted from 25 years ago waiting to be let in; the shadow boxer on the street corner in Midtown, mumbling to himself as he jabs at an invisible adversary; the unresponsive man unable to get off the train at the end of the line without assistance from our mobile crisis team.

‘A String Of High-Profile Crimes’

The next day, the New York Times (11/29/22) put the story on its front page. The article, by Andy Newman and Emma Fitzsimmons, led by conflating homelessness and crime:

Acting to address “a crisis we see all around us” toward the end of a year that has seen a string of high-profile crimes involving homeless people, Mayor Eric Adams announced a major push on Tuesday to remove people with severe, untreated mental illness from the city’s streets and subways.

As FAIR’s Olivia Riggio (4/4/22) has pointed out, unhoused people are far more often “involved” as victims rather than perpetrators of crime, but most media coverage falsely suggests the reverse, scapegoating them for broader structural problems. Shortly after unquestioningly conflating homelessness and crime, the reporters offered their take on the political context:

The mayor’s announcement comes at a heated moment in the national debate about rising crime and the role of the police, especially in dealing with people who are already in fragile mental health. Republicans, as well as tough-on-crime Democrats like Mr. Adams, a former police captain, have argued that growing disorder calls for more aggressive measures. Left-leaning advocates and officials who dominate New York politics say that deploying the police as auxiliary social workers may do more harm than good.

It’s a crucial framing paragraph that does a lot of subtle work to establish the terms of the debate in a way that skews toward a pro-policing stance. First, by referring to the “national debate about rising crime and the role of the police,” it implies that crime is a major problem, and the debate is simply about how much and what kind of policing should be the solution.

This implication is then reinforced in the next sentence describing the right-wing perspective, which refers to “growing disorder”—and isn’t countered in any way by the characterization of the “left-leaning” perspective offered by the Times, which challenges not the assumptions but only the proposed solution (and that with only a weak “may do more harm than good”).

“Rising crime” itself is an extremely vague and context-free term. According to national FBI statistics, overall violent crime went down last year. While violent crime is up slightly since its recent low point in 2014, it’s roughly half what it was in 1991 (FAIR.org11/10/22).

In New York City, some crimes, like robbery, have increased; other high-profile crimes, like murder, are dropping. Overall rates of major felonies are less than half that of their peak in the 1990s; the main driver of the current increase appears to be a spike in grand larceny offenses, which are by definition nonviolent and include all pickpocketing offenses.

The next paragraph does more of this subtle framing work: “Other large cities have struggled with how to help homeless people, in particular those dealing with mental illness.” This sentence takes at face value Adams’ claim that he is making “every effort to assist those who are suffering from mental illness.” If Adams—and the leaders of other cities like San Francisco, Portland and Washington, DC—were actually primarily interested in helping homeless people, their responses would not rely foremost on tactics like arrests, forced hospitalization, and clearing of encampments, but instead on the sorts of policies that actually address the struggles of the unhoused and the root causes of homelessness, like providing supportive housing and long-term services, and tackling inequality and lack of affordable housing.

As advocates point out, New York City’s support services for both mental health conditions and for unhoused people are woefully inadequate and, in many areas, shrinking rather than receiving increased funding and staffing. They argue that forcing hospitalization, when psychiatric wards are already overburdened and understaffed, and when Adams offered no plan for continuing assistance or housing after discharge, is “likely to end in violence and criminal charges,” as well as “the loss of access to basic rights and services, including employment, parenting, education, housing, professional licenses or even potentially the right to drive.”

But with prominent news outlets like the Times parroting without question the implausible suggestion that cities cracking down on unsheltered people constitutes efforts to help them, city leaders can continue to offer with impunity ineffective and traumatizing policies in place of real solutions.

‘Focus On Public Safety’

The piece continued its conflation of homelessness and crime, declaring (in an article about a policy supposedly intended to “help homeless people”) that “crime has increased sharply in the subways this year,” and that the mayor had previously claimed that “it’s being driven by people with mental health issues.” The reporters failed to assess the mayor’s claim—until the next day, when they noted in a much more critical follow-up piece (11/30/22) that “most crimes overall are not committed by people who are unhoused or mentally ill, and most mentally ill or homeless people are not violent.” The Times buried that article on page 20.

They also failed to mention that subway ridership has also increased sharply—even more than subway crime, in fact—or that one’s odds of being the victim of a crime while riding on any form of NYC transit (subways and buses) this year is 1.62 out of 1 million. That’s up from 1.55 out of 1 million last year at this time, to put this “sharp increase in crime” in perspective.

Still more bias awaited readers who continued this far:

Mr. Adams has received criticism from some progressive members of his party for clearing homeless encampments and for continuing to push for changes to bail reform that would make it easier to keep people in jail. The mayor has defended his focus on public safety and has argued that many New Yorkers do not feel safe, particularly in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Newman and Fitzsimmons again let Adams define the terms of debate, not questioning the idea that clearing homeless encampments and clawing back bail reform constitute “public safety” measures.

The first is highly dubious; the second is simply false. Research suggests that clearing encampments simply temporarily disperses residents, who rarely move into a shelter after a sweep. In fact, it often disrupts residents’ lives and emotional states even further. Because police frequently confiscate and destroy residents’ property, including personal identification, sweeps make it harder for them to access stabilizing government services.

Second, New York’s bail reform targeted only misdemeanor and nonviolent felony cases, keeping bail-setting unchanged for the vast majority of crimes that one thinks of as related to public safety. And, in fact, jailing people before they have been convicted of a crime—often for months or even years on end—has been found to actually increase future crime.

‘Where Perceptions Come From’

Just a few days later, in the Times‘ New York Today newsletter (also published on its website, 12/2/22), James Barron interviewed Times reporter Newman. Newman’s final answer perfectly illustrated the problem with media coverage of crime:

Will this plan change people’s perceptions that the subways are no longer safe?

Let’s talk about where those perceptions come from first. Riders’ perceptions that subways are unsafe are driven by two things: their own experiences of dealing with people on the platform or the train who seem unstable enough that they might lash out, and media reports about crime.

The statistics are not encouraging. Through October, felony assaults, murders and rapes in the subway system—all crimes that are likely to be random—were up 20 percent compared with the same period last year. Property crimes, including robberies, which can be violent, were up even more. This jump in crime has occurred despite several efforts by Mayor Adams to flood the transit system with police.

Newman’s response acknowledged that news media play a major role in people’s perceptions of crime, but falsely implied that those media simply reflect reality—while he provided context-free “statistics” to feed misperceptions about subway safety. Subway ridership was up 39% through October compared with 2021, meaning one’s odds of being the victim of a violent crime on the subway actually decreased rather sharply in the past year. And “property crimes” are by definition nonviolent. (Robbery is a violent crime, not a property crime.)

More Like Murdoch

Looking at the city’s tabloid dailies, the Times read more like the Rupert Murdoch–owned New York Post than the more centrist Daily News. Like the Times, the Post (11/29/22) teed off by coupling crime and unhoused people with mental illness: “Following a string of horrifying subway attacks, Mayor Eric Adams dramatically expanded the city’s ability to involuntarily commit New Yorkers with chronic and untreated mental illness.” It included one critical quote at the very end of the report after a string of praise. (The Post‘s editorial board the same day praised Adams for his plan “to bring dignity and help to mentally ill homeless New Yorkers.”)

Interestingly, the Daily News (11/29/22) only mentioned crime once in its main report, and not until the seventh paragraph of the article, which focused more on the practical and legal questions surrounding the new directive. Nor did it go as far as the Times in suggesting a link between crime and homelessness, writing that “several violent incidents on the subways” have “led to a broader public debate over what should be done to address the city’s homeless crisis and mental health needs amid the collective trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

While that Daily News piece gave over the vast majority of its article to Adams and his supporters, an accompanying piece (11/29/22) included prominent criticism challenging the link Adams made between the unhoused and crime, quoting the Coalition for the Homeless:

Homeless people are more likely to be the victims of crimes than the perpetrators, but Mayor Adams has continually scapegoated homeless people and others with mental illness as violent.

Unfortunately, the Daily News—like the Post—also misconstrued a poorly written press release from the Legal Aid Society to suggest that Adams’ plan drew both “Criticism and Praise” from public advocates. While it later amended the article to acknowledge that none of its sources actually offered praise for the plan, it did not change its headline. It did, however, subsequently publish an op-ed by Legal Aid Society’s Stefen Short (12/5/22), who made a forceful case against Adams’ directive:

All reputable studies show that permanent housing and community-based treatment options are the only tools that improve prospects for people with mental illness, preserve their autonomy and agency, reliably reduce violence and build safe and stable communities….

Adams wants us to think he is piloting these initiatives because he cares about public safety. But these initiatives do not serve public safety. They merely create the illusion of public safety by disappearing people without solving the challenges underpinning their situation. If the mayor cared about public safety, he would direct an immediate infusion of resources into supportive housing, culturally competent outpatient services and other interventions that help people manage their mental health, support their loved ones and contribute to their communities.

New Yorkers are far more likely to be killed by a reckless car driver than by a person without housing; drivers have killed more than 200 people in New York City so far this year, dwarfing the small handful killed by unhoused people. Yet breathless media coverage of the far rarer threat works hand in hand with reporters’ consistent failure to challenge government officials’ narratives about public safety to skew public understanding of the biggest problems—and solutions—impacting their lives.

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