The ‘5 Pointz’ building is seen from a passing subway car in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, 2013

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Reclaiming the Urban Virtue of Judging

Social trust is a core feature of city living. It requires us to judge those who hurt our shared community.

by
Hannah Elka Meyers
July 10, 2024
The '5 Pointz' building is seen from a passing subway car in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, 2013

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In high school, I got arrested for spraying graffiti. After a horrible night in central booking—penned in with women jailed for 1990s crimes like sidewalk joint-smoking and MetroCard fraud—I had my moment in court, then got pancakes at the Veselka and went straight to school. It was a deeply unpleasant experience: so violating, so humiliating. A female cop searched inside my bra. The toilet had no door. It impressed upon my teenage mind the realization that I had really fucked up. One cop asked me what I’d been thinking. My parents asked me what I’d been thinking. Of course, I hadn’t really been thinking about my own behavior. But now I was thinking about how, with a few more bad decisions, my own story could go wrong in any number of ways.

As it turned out, the city didn’t want me painting on its property: It cared about my behavior.

What has changed in New York City in the past decade is that, by changing our public safety policies, we stopped our criminal justice system from doing the same amount of official judging that it used to. The city no longer cares about people’s behavior. And this, critically, has changed how actively we all informally watch and judge.

For most of us, the unofficial judgment from our community matters more than that of police and courts. I felt most shamed about my law breaking by reasonable grown-ups who simply pointed out I’d been a jerk and let them down.

This is why Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” are so important for neighborhood safety. It is why criminologist Robert Sampson’s “collective efficacy” measures a community’s power to thrive by members’ willingness to intervene in problems as well as by trust levels. And it’s why the now-maligned “broken windows” proposition of George Kelling and James Q. Wilson observed how visual signals of disorder and decay reduce a community’s ability to organically deter crime. Where there is less watching and refereeing there is usually more crime. And where there is more crime, there is less trust, and on and on into a community death spiral.

We turned against the very concept of criminal justice because we rejected its core function: judgment.

Yet here, in my blisteringly conscientious community on the Upper West Side, an ideology about criminal justice and race has created a bizarre pact of disregard. We have become profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of judgment. And in order to accommodate this sharp aversion, we have all quietly agreed to stop observing the street life around us, how other New Yorkers’ stories are playing out, and to ignore how the streets shape us, our behavior, and our sense of self. We’re even discounting our own importance: the role we play in making our own community and city a place we want to live.

Yes, people do crazy things when they buy into a narrative that sets aside observed reality.

For me, 2020 was the year when performative non-judgy-ness triumphed over basic civility on my Upper West Side. Giddy white ladies waved homemade signs urging: “Honk to End White Supremacy!” They blocked crosswalk ramps, while the honking woke my kids in their stroller. “Stop Murdering Black People!” demanded a gargantuan banner held by solemn biddies across 96th Street and Broadway. But who on the profoundly liberal Upper West Side does not want to end white supremacy? And who’s murdering Black people at 96th and Broadway between Krispy Kreme and The Plant Shed?

Further, of the roughly 200,000 Upper West Siders, only 6.5% are Black, while around 64% are white—the rest split roughly between Hispanics and Asians. Around 45,000 residents are Jewish. Before 2020, the UWS averaged less than three murders per year. It doesn’t require my professional knowledge of extremism or NYC homicide data to know: Neo-Nazis are out of earshot here and this is the wrong district to admonish folks against killing.

What were we doing?

This was just the fever pitch of a movement that had been brewing for years—since at least 2014, when Michael Brown was shot by Ferguson police officers (apocryphally shouting, “hands up, don’t shoot”). This crusade, with the exponential intensifier of social media, sought a vision of community that—although it felt intuitive and had admirable goals—simply didn’t square with observed reality. It overlooked the true fabric of trust on the streets that UWSers used to crusade for: Do ladies feel safe walking home at night? Can low-wage workers take the subways safely to job sites at 4 a.m.? Can shops stay in business? Are parks clean and smoke-free?

It was a vision of community defined, instead, by rejection of authority and the criminal justice system on the murky grounds that they embody racism. And it silenced all of our instincts and expertise.

In late 2021, I was on a panel with Manhattan District Attorney-elect Alvin Bragg hosted by UWS synagogue B’nai Jeshurun. We commented on a raft of local incidents involving men from newly opened shelters who were defecating and exposing themselves in front of children and carrying knives. I shared data showing that, to date, police are able to move severely mentally ill people into supervised treatment as no other agency has been able to accomplish. Panelist Anthonine Pierre, credentialed on the topic solely by her affiliation with a police abolitionist, “Black liberation” NGO, pronounced that the best response was actually to combat “the bias that we as a society have against people who need medical care.”

How could a congregation of adults, many of whom devote their lives to others’ mental health, sit there and take this dressing down from a 20-something, inexpert outsider responding to a genuine community problem with condescending pablum? What weirded me out was that, while UWS Jews I’m sure represent the densest population of therapists in the nation, not one made a peep! Better to be patronized into silence than to appear judgy.

When my own synagogue hoisted a huge Black Lives Matter banner—the rabbi insisted it wasn’t an expression of support for any particular movement—I felt involuntarily complicit in letting my city down. BLM clearly was a specific movement (their website enjoins visitors to “Join the Movement”) that advocated, among less radical things, abolishing law enforcement and the traditional family. Around NYC and the United States, Black Lives Matter protests turned ugly, destroying property and sometimes commingling chants of “Death to Israel!” with “Fuck the Police!” Why would my synagogue add its institutional weight to this?

BLM, with all of its inspirational ethos, had the effect of convincing compassionate people that, because Black lives matter, we should each forgo making judgments about behavior. In an effort to stop judging groups, we took it upon ourselves to stop judging individuals, too. Because if we weren’t being observed and judged all the time—the thinking goes—everyone would be spared invisible biases and we’d all behave well. The movement promised to create public safety and racial equity in part by relieving vulnerable people from the hurt of judgment. And this would, according to this argument, create equally perfect behavior across individuals and racial groups.

Therefore, says this self-effacing narrative, if you care about Blacks, you will restrain your instinct to judge anyone. And while this is a very understandable response to the existence of bigotry and to frustrations with persistent racial disparities, it is a destructive and condemning conclusion. Because it demanded that we extend individual trust automatically.

Indeed, the new narrative implicitly insisted: Citizens can forgo judging people by simply trusting them. Therefore, our robust system is not actually necessary because criminal judgment isn’t really that complex. The system is a scam. Trust is a choice. And so, we turned against the very concept of criminal justice because we rejected its core function: judgment. Civic activism itself became about preventing arrest, prosecution, and incarceration—part of a misguided belief that less policing would improve neighborhood trust.

The fatal flaw in this logic is that, in order to actually trust, people on the street need to exercise judgment. Social trust implicitly requires individuals assessing how secure we feel about the people around us. How will these strangers around me act? Will they attack me? Will they intervene if I’m attacked? Should I intervene if they’re attacked? Are they sane?

The criminal justice system can figure this out more correctly because it has access to information about how a person has acted before, how witnesses described his behavior, and how our laws have been applied to this type of behavior in the past. Communities leverage trained and dedicated police, prosecutors, and judges to make ethical and legal decisions based on their expert, informed, arbitrated judgment—as a backstop to the less expert, less informed way average citizens size each other up on the street.

Indeed, we actually need a whole system of institutions and professionals to handle judgment because it is as complex as human behavior, which makes some of us trustworthy sometimes but not always. Like my immature teen self, who was not a bad person but behaved badly. And the judgment of both the system and the people in my life reinforced my behaving better as a way to earn trust that is not given indiscriminately.

Because, of course, deciding whether to trust is not a choice. It’s a gut feeling we experience through observing those around us. It’s a core feature of city living. And real trust about our personal safety focuses on perceived behavior. As even the uber-feminist hosts of top-ranked podcast My Favorite Murder! put it, “Fuck politeness.” If someone creeps you out, you don’t need to force yourself to stay in a dark alley with them even if you risk seeming judgmental or rude. Sometimes you need to listen to your involuntary assessments and just run like hell in order to: “stay sexy and don’t get murdered.”

But, incredibly, the big-hearted intellectuals of the Upper West Side so entirely rejected everything intuitive and learned about these societal dynamics that they participated, through advocacy and voting, in eviscerating their own system for criminal arbitration. And this system, as data makes tangible, has stopped judging. And the impact has been huge.

There were around 11,000 more felony assaults citywide last year than in 2010. In the precinct encompassing the UWS’s iconic Lincoln Center and Museum of Natural History these nearly doubled in that time—rising by a quarter just since 2021. Meanwhile, misdemeanor assaults in Central Park rose by almost 150% since 2010—and by 88% in just the past two years.

But our courts are letting these assaults slide.

Since 2019, all assault convictions in Manhattan fell by over a quarter. For misdemeanor assaults, like sucker-punching strangers, convictions fell by a third.

Correspondingly, dismissals for assault cases have risen steadily and dramatically. A decade ago, only 45% of Manhattan assault cases were dismissed; last year we threw out fully two-thirds—or 2,651 more assaults.

On the UWS, the conviction rate for felony assault plummeted from 65% to 36%. And for misdemeanor assault cases, the dismissal rate rose over the past decade from less than half to three-quarters of cases tossed out.

Deciding whether to trust is not a choice. It’s a gut feeling we experience through observing those around us. And real trust about our personal safety focuses on perceived behavior.

A decade ago, in the halcyon days when toothpaste and multivitamins weren’t locked up at all pharmacies, we prosecuted 16,522 more property crimes in Manhattan than in 2023—when theft is now rampant. And because we wanted to prosecute these offenses back then, the District Attorney’s office only declined to prosecute 32 UWS property crimes; last year, they declined to prosecute 291 cases, or nine times as many. Even the number of declined misdemeanor property cases ballooned from only 13 to 238.

And even for that smaller number of UWS property crimes we’re still prosecuting, many of these cases are ending in dismissal rather than conviction. Just since 2019, the conviction rate for felony property crimes on the UWS fell from 79% of cases down to only 38%. Concurrently, the dismissal rates for property crimes in Manhattan rose from 15% to 29%—that’s 1,650 more tossed cases.

These dramatic shifts are not random or inexplicable. They are the result of nearly a decade of criminal justice reform policies that had the explicit goal of shrinking the reach, the engagement, and even the efficacy of the system’s scrutiny and judgment. In New York City and state, these legislative changes accelerated since 2016, when a preemptive decision to close Rikers Island jail drove policies that would empty out some of the thousands of inmates. We raised the age at which shooting at someone could land you in jail (the “Raise the Age” legislation); added an insurmountable amount of irrelevant “evidence” prosecutors needed to rapidly accumulate just to prosecute any case (“discovery reform”); and added processes that made revoking parole for committing fresh crimes frequently impossible (the Less Is More Act). Policies decriminalized behavior that makes cities scuzzy: public urination, low-level shoplifting, trespassing, and open containers.

And with plummeting rates of convictions and rising dismissals, defendants struggling under mental illness and drug addiction suddenly lacked any incentive to go into mandatory, supervised treatment: Participation in such drug abuse programs dropped 84% between 2020 and 2023. Instead, they were released back to subway platforms to randomly scream at and punch strangers, to the aisles of Duane Reade to load up on shampoo and Tylenol for resale, and to commingle untraceably with New Yorkers who behave better.

The mechanics of bail reform make it easy to track the magnitude of its impact. Over 500 fewer Manhattan assailants were held in on bail for low-level assaults last year, compared to pre-reform. Instead, 14 times as many attackers went to “supervised release,” a program with no consequences for dodging all supervision.

More consequential, across the five years prior to bail reform, felony assault defendants were held on bail at an average of 55% of Manhattan assault cases. Now it’s only 37%. Meanwhile, we went from just seven arraigned attackers getting shunted back to the streets under supervised release—to 454 defendants last year.

All this to say, as crime increased, we made our system judge people less—all while pretending this could only spell greater trust on sidewalks and subway platforms.

And for all these new victims of crime, certain streets are now imprinted with painful memories. For families of the additional dozen UWS murder victims in the past few years, there are now crosswalks pocked with grief. For everyone assaulted, there are neighborhoods that evoke deep sorrow, and the stores looted constantly before our eyes conjure frustration and a feeling of unfairness. Cumulatively, we sense more fear everywhere.

Sadly, but predictably, suppressing judgment has spelled disaster for groups with fewer of the informal controls that curb behavior through unofficial expectations and norms. If you don’t even have a dad to look you in the eyes with honest disappointment and ask you why you behaved badly, removing the possibility of an intake officer doing it is an even larger impediment to understanding why behavior matters. Also, it removes the opportunity for rule breakers to get perspective on their own stories and how to keep them from going wrong.

In 2021, after the criminal justice reform explosion, the city suffered 169 more murders than in 2019. Of these additional dead New Yorkers, about 158 were Black or Black Hispanic, 11 were white. On the UWS, where annual murders averaged between one and four for years, there were a stunning nine homicides in 2020. None of the killers were white and, with the exception of the headline-grabbing spousal murder of James Murray, neither were any of the victims. Last year, there were seven homicides—again, of all those involved, only one, a victim, was white.

Since 2020, Black arrestees on the UWS rose 12%, while white arrestees dropped by a third (around 200 fewer arrests).

Black arrestees for serious felonies also rose here by about a quarter, to 522 arrests last year. But, for whites, serious felony arrests fell to just 82. The growth in disparity is just as stark in convictions. Whereas in 2019, about four-and-a-half times as many Black felony defendants as white ones were convicted on the UWS, by 2023, there were over seven times as many.

These trends hold across categories.

Black arrestees for assault rose by 13% after 2019, to 297 arrests on the UWS in 2023. For whites, assault arrests fell by 27% to just 66 arrests.

In 2019, there were 611 Black arrestees for UWS property crimes; last year, that number rose slightly. But for white thieves, arrests fell by 44%, from 187 to 105. Put another way, a few years ago, Blacks were arrested for property crimes three-and-a-quarter as many times as whites; now it’s six-and-a-half times as often.

Even the benefits of our reforms redounded more to white defendants than Black ones.

In 2019, both groups had slightly under 40% of their Manhattan felony cases beneficially downgraded to just misdemeanors. But by 2023, the percentage downgraded for white felony defendants was 46%, for Blacks it was just 36%.

Similarly, before bail reform, nine-and-a-half times as many Black felons as white felons on the UWS were held in on bail; now it’s over 11 times as many Blacks held in on bail for felonies as whites.

And, finally, the scourge of repeat offending has proliferated among UWS Black offenders but not white ones. In 2019, only 85 Blacks with multiple prior felony and misdemeanor convictions were arrested on the UWS; but by last year, it had risen to a decade high at 134 arrests. For white Upper West Siders, there were four such arrests and remained four.

These are a lot of stats that make absolutely no one happy. But they underscore the intense degree to which a regime based on muting judgment hasn’t achieved even its primary stated goal: removing the blight of a criminal justice system full of racial disparities. And, tragically, it adds incentive for New Yorkers to abandon some of their civic trust and take the lazier route of statistics-based caution: Just cross to the other side of the street when a Black man approaches at dusk.

Are my neighbors not seeing this?

Last month, while walking my kids home from school at dusk, I noticed someone tagging a mailbox on West End Avenue. As I got closer, I recognized a blond kid, maybe 15 years old, I’ve seen at the park where I still skateboard. I left my stroller and tapped him on the shoulder: “Hey, it’s me,” I said. “From the skatepark.” He jumped. “Oh hey,” he said, “I thought you were some stranger.” I pointed to the mailbox: “Why are you doing that?” He shrugged, “It’s just something I do.” It was a weirdly circular moment for me as I mustered: “Don’t do that. We love our city. We don’t write on it and make it dirty.” He looked sheepish but I had the distinct feeling that some random skateboarding mom wasn’t going to have the curative effect on him that a similar lecture and handcuffs had had on me.

What will our children grow up thinking about themselves and their city? If my daughter starts spraying graffiti, would she ever stand before a judge, like I did, or do community service? Would she be asked about it before being hired even to tutor SATs, like I was? Will the city around her let her know that trust is earned; or, instead, will she pick up the message that behavior goes unjudged and willfully unobserved?

And that’s just graffiti. What about 16- and 17-year-olds carrying around illegal guns, osmotically aware that “Raise the Age” legislation removed all consequences and criminal records? Juvenile shooters have already more than tripled under this law, and juvenile shooting victims more than doubled.

We’re neglecting to teach each other how easily our stories can shift when we make bad decisions. We got so worried about appearing racist that we forgot that showing love for neighbors of all races requires we judge those who hurt our shared community.

In our own individual lives, feeling observed and judged used to help shape us and each other into good citizens who lead idiosyncratic, meaningful, happy lives. Even the rush I got walking around Alphabet City in high school in my coolest sneakers, and the relationships I molded there: These were functions of the affirming sense of being seen and sized up in a city you care about.

The reformist zeal has shriveled around the Upper West Side. The wind blew the Black Lives Matter banner down from my synagogue and it never went back up. The 96th Street protesters found something else to do on Fridays. And I wonder whether my neighbors who put so much skin in the game of reform policies will ever be able to just have a conversation openly about this failure, about what we’ve done to our own beloved community.

I must admit I have moments now where this city bums me out. I hate shuttling my kids to the next subway car to avoid raving men in hospital slippers. I hate waiting forever in CVS for a clerk to liberate my conditioner. I loathe the blasé clouds of pot smoke that now casually smog up my precious skatepark at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. I’m enraged that even though the name and image of every reported teenage gunman and teenage shooting victim is Black or Hispanic we continue to pretend robust criminal justice laws weren’t protecting Blacks and Hispanics.

But mostly, I love this city and its 8 million residents so damn much. I hope my community joins me again in supporting laws that judge the hell out of anyone who harms them.

Hannah E. Meyers is a fellow and director of policing and public safety at the Manhattan Institute.

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