'Dark period': Killings spike in NYC amid pandemic, unrest

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FILE - In this Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, a neighbor watches New York City Police Department officers work a crime scene where several young men were shot and wounded at the Ravenswood Houses in the Queens borough of New York. Heralded as the safest big city in America in recent years, New York City is closing out its bloodiest year in nearly a decade, grappling with a surge in homicides and a pandemic authorities say has helped fuel violence. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

NEW YORK – Heralded as the safest big city in America in recent years, New York City is closing out its bloodiest year in nearly a decade, grappling with a surge in homicides and a pandemic authorities say has helped fuel violence.

The city had recorded 447 killings as of Tuesday, a 41% increase over last year and the largest number since 2011. The number of people shot has more than doubled last year’s total, nearing a 14-year high.

Among the victims: a 1-year-old boy sitting in his stroller at a summer cookout; a 53-year-old teacher walking his dog; and a 43-year-old mother looking out the window of her child’s third-floor bedroom. All three were killed by stray bullets.

The carnage, however startling, pales in comparison to the bullet-riddled years of the early 1990s. Still, 2020 marked the third consecutive year of rising homicides after New York City recorded a modern-era low of 292 killings in 2017.

Police leaders are eagerly anticipating the turn of the calendar, pointing to unprecedented challenges officers faced as COVID-19 brought the city to its knees.

Crimefighting this year has been complicated by everything from budget constraints to the ubiquity of mask wearing. Clearance rates fell as detective squads were stricken by the virus, and faith in law enforcement faltered amid police killings of Black people.

“We're definitely coming out of that dark period,” Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said at police headquarters Tuesday. “The confluence of COVID into the protests into all of the debate about defunding the police — I can’t imagine a darker period.”

The spike in violence started just as the pandemic began disrupting lives and shuttering businesses, and it reached a crescendo over the summer, as the city recorded an average 57 killings per month in July, August and September. By comparison, each of those months averaged 33 homicides in 2019.