The Big Apple had about 290 homicides in 2017, the lowest in 70 years, according to the New York Daily News.
Some have even dubbed today’s NYC “the safest big city” in the US.
Burke, 55, reported from ground zero on 9/11, helped break the Eric Garner story, and was even on a few episodes of Bravo’s “Tabloid Wars” in 2006. He said he had been to roughly four shootings a week since he started the job 16 years ago.
The first night we spent with Kerry passed with few incidents – perhaps a sign of the safer times. But the last two nights told a different story.
Here’s what we saw.
(This story was originally published in September 2017.)
Night 1: I met Burke in the Bronx while he was trying to find a man who had just been acquitted on murder charges.
“How are ya, Mr. Brown?” he said in a Boston accent.
Burke, who grew up in Boston’s Dorchester housing projects, was rather formal at first, but switched right away to “bro” or “brotha,” like he called almost every other guy I met with him.
He filled me in on the details about the man he was looking for before we walked to the guy’s last known address.
Residents in the building told him the man no longer lived there, so Burke asked people in other buildings and nearby stores whether they knew him.
“Bodegas are the best,” he said. “They know everything that goes on in the neighbourhood, and they know everybody.”
He walked into one unlocked neighbouring apartment building and knocked on doors.
Burke was adept at talking to and gaining the trust of all different sorts of people, and he stressed the importance of being polite.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a troubled Catholic that I always say thank you,” Burke said, adding that he “might have to come back” to get more information too.
After about an hour or so, Burke was able to get the man’s phone number but was unable to reach him.
He later heard that a murder suspect was being questioned at the 32nd precinct and decided to go wait outside in the hopes of getting a statement when the suspect walked out.
Around 11 p.m., the suspect’s cousin walked out of the precinct. Burke asked him a few questions but didn’t get much.
Throughout the eight hours I spent with Burke that first night, there were no homicides and only one shooting – a man hit in the buttocks.
The victim was immediately stabilised, and since the incident was not serious and happened more than an hour away from us, we didn’t go.
I took the lack of homicides or serious shootings during Burke’s shift – especially given it was a Friday night – as a good sign. But it was only the first night.
Night 2: The start of the next shift found us with Angus Mordant, a Daily News freelance photographer, outside of a hospital trying to find a kid hit by a baseball at Yankee Stadium.
Burke and Mordant were bemoaning being there when suddenly Burke got a call about a cop shot in Yonkers. The three of us jumped into Mordant’s car and headed to the scene.
Mordant took a helmet and vest out of his trunk and put them in the back seat in case we needed them.
Mordant said he carries the vest only because of the police, recounting how he once witnessed an officer in Manhattan shoot at an unarmed robbery suspect in the middle of a street, miss, and hit two bystanders.
The scene, which was taped off at three intersections, was large and filled with all sorts of police units and emergency services.
Burke almost immediately found a neighbour to interview. She said she heard more than 30 shots in a gunfight that lasted longer than 10 minutes.
“We were doing homework with my sons. It was semiautomatic that was going off,” she said. “Even after the cops arrived, they kept firing … We called the cops, and they said to stay inside – it was an active police shooting.”
A police source told Burke that a neighbour called the cops about two men sitting in a parked car in a secluded part of a residential street. The police said that when the two officers approached the car, one of the men started firing at them with a handgun, hitting one of the officers.
“She’s shot in the face,” the officer’s partner said over the radio. “We’re right behind the suspect. We’re pinned down. We can’t f—ing move.”
One of the suspects was also shot in the ensuing gun battle and taken to the hospital in serious condition. The second suspect was taken into custody.
When I asked Burke why the cops had been called on the suspects, he said it was probably because it was a black man and a Hispanic man sitting in a white neighbourhood.
Broadcast media was all over the scene, too.
There were reports that one of the suspects had a high-powered rifle, and SWAT teams were searching everywhere for the weapon.
As Burke called in facts and quotes to an editor, the cops brought in a mobile command center for precaution.
The Yonkers mayor and the police chief eventually walked over to the media to give a statement and answer questions.
“It could have been much worse,” Charles Gardner, the police commissioner of Yonkers, said at the scene. “Thank God the officer right now did not sustain a life-threatening injury.”
When we were driving back, Burke told us about an intern who once worked a shift with him.
He said they went to a double homicide where the bodies were both on the ground and a rather unruly crowd had gathered.
Instead of interviewing people, the intern hid behind a tree, started crying, and quit the next day.
“This job ain’t for everyone,” Burke said. “I’m a breaking-news reporter in New York – that means murder and mayhem.”
Night 3: I met Burke at Union Square in Manhattan. Within an hour, we were at another shooting, this time at the Nathan Straus housing project just north of the East Village.
Burke found out that a 17-year-old boy had been shot in the leg after getting into an argument in the entrance tunnel of the project.
Another section down the street was also taped off, and Burke speculated the victim probably stumbled down the street after getting shot and collapsed.
“It’s perp-y,” Burke said, meaning it wasn’t newsworthy since it wasn’t a serious injury and appeared gang-related.
“I couldn’t sell [the story] to the desk,” Burke later told me. “It breaks my heart.”
That’s, unfortunately, the business of crime reporting: A shooting in a good neighbourhood is a big deal, but one in a bad neighbourhood, or one involving gang members, doesn’t get as much attention.
We then heard about a homicide in the Bronx and that the victim was pronounced dead at the scene. Bad neighbourhood or not, a body on the ground is always newsworthy.
Ken Murray, another Daily News photographer, picked us up, and the three of us drove north to the shooting.
Murray, whose father was also a Daily News photographer who died at an early age, said he started taking pictures for local news outlets when he was 9.
He’s been a Daily News staff photographer since 1993, and, like Burke, has reported on a lot, including the “Son of Sam” serial killer in 1977 and the attacks on 9/11. He got to the scene of Eric Garner’s death before Burke did.
“I was the first guy there,” Murray said in a New York accent.
He said he had tracked down the witness who shot the video of Garner’s death. “Within 10 minutes, I got the whole story,” he said, adding that the witness’ friend took him to the witness’ apartment, where he found the guy sitting on his bicycle.
As Burke said, “Kenny’s money, bro.” And the feeling seemed mutual.
“Burke is the best reporter in New York City,” Murray said. “When he’s with me, I know I’m getting my story in the paper.”
When we got to the scene of the shooting, there were a lot of bystanders outside of the tape, and we couldn’t see much. We went to the other side to get a better look.
The man’s body was covered by a white sheet in the middle of the street, roughly 40 to 50 yards from the white line of police tape we stood behind.
Burke quickly heard from witnesses that the 39-year-old man was getting into an SUV with his 15-year-old son when a group of young men on bicycles rode up.
Burke was told that the son was in a street gang called Patria and had for two months been clashing with the rival gang members on bikes.
When the father tried to intervene in a fight, one of the young men pulled out a handgun and started firing, hitting the father six times and grazing a bystander in the head, Burke reported.
Burke also heard from an eyewitness that the 39-year-old victim and his wife ran a daycare in one of the apartments overlooking the street where he was killed.
The eyewitness said the man was studying to be a minister, and that his wife and other family members were in their apartment when he was shot.
A lot of children and families were in the crowd, but so too were gang members, which is why some eyewitnesses didn’t want to say too much.
The police put a tent over the body, which Burke said they do when they take the sheet off for forensic work.
The medical examiner eventually took the body away.
I asked Burke whether the fire department would wash the blood off the street, and he told me the city probably wouldn’t.
“In better neighbourhoods they do,” he said.
As we were leaving the scene, we heard multiple calls of about nine or 10 shots fired only a few minutes away. Anticipating someone shot, we drove to the scene.
Within a minute, we heard on Murray’s police scanner that someone was shot, followed by a woman screaming that she had blood all over her.
The two videos below show what we saw when we were driving to and arriving at the scene:
— Daniel Brown (@danielbrown2011) September 27, 2017
Rest of video pic.twitter.com/yH40cvJXqG
— Daniel Brown (@danielbrown2011) September 27, 2017
The victim was surrounded by officers and bystanders, shot in the leg and sitting on the ground with blood on his shoe. After a few minutes, he was helped up and limping around.
A lot of people were on the block, and many of them were yelling and visibly angry. It was clear there had been a fight. “It’s perp-y,” Burke said, using the slang word meaning not newsworthy.
I asked Burke at one point whether going to so many scenes over the years had affected him.
“I’m fine, bro,” he said with a laugh. “I have to be, or you can’t do this.”
But Burke said that seeing dead kids and talking to grieving family members was still hard.
“When I came here, it was understood you did this job for one to three years, and then you’re done – you’re burnt out,” he said.
“They used to tell me it will eat your soul,” Burke said, adding that the job hadn’t consumed him yet because he wasn’t from a very nice place. “Nice guys don’t deal in other people’s agony.”
After two nights of not going to a shooting scene in the city, we saw three in one night.
It was a brutal reminder that while New York City is not Chicago or Detroit, it’s still the largest city in the US – a country that struggles with incredibly high homicide rates compared with other Western countries, such as England or France.
“Often we hear crime is down,” Burke said. “But for those in these neighbourhoods, it’s a story about gangs that is undercovered by the media,” or about poverty or mental illness.
“Violence is the barometer for society’s ills,” he said.
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