November 22, 2013
Police Unsure if Random Attacks Are Rising Threat or Urban Myth
By CARA BUCKLEY
Fear swept through Borough Park, Brooklyn, as soon as the news got out: A young man was randomly assaulted by strangers early Friday morning, and the attack was possibly part of the so-called Knockout Game.
Four men were arrested, but on Friday night only one was charged and the others were released.
The attack added to a growing log of reports of such crimes in the Northeast and beyond. Young assailants were randomly picking unlucky targets and trying to knock them out with just one punch.
Yet police officials in several cities where such attacks have been reported said that the “game” amounted to little more than an urban myth, and that the attacks in question might be nothing more than the sort of random assaults that have always occurred.
And in New York City, police officials are struggling to determine whether they should advise the public to take precautions against the Knockout Game — or whether in fact it existed.
“We’re trying to determine whether or not this is a real phenomenon,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Friday. “I mean, yes, something like this can happen. But we would like to have people come forward and give us any information they have.”
Dread about being singled out for attacks has taken root in Jewish communities in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights, Borough Park and Midwood, according to Dov Hikind, a state assemblyman.
Two weeks ago, a 78-year-old woman in Brooklyn reported being punched in the head, with her assailant fleeing without touching her shopping bags or her pocketbook.
This followed sporadic reports of similar recent attacks in Crown Heights, Mr. Hikind said, including one on a 19-year-old Hasidic man who said he had been approached by eight men and then punched in the face by one of them, in what the police said was a possible hate crime.
Then, at 2:45 a.m. on Friday, on the border of Borough Park, a 24-year-old man found himself suddenly boxed in by three men and punched by a fourth. Police said the four men had been out celebrating and were “somewhat intoxicated.” Mr. Kelly said the victim overheard the group discussing “how you knock somebody out.” (Amrit Marajh, 28, of Brooklyn, was charged with assault and with aggravated harassment as a hate crime.)
Whatever the case, a type of panic set in. Mr. Hikind said a girls’ high school in Midwood canceled a Friday evening get-together after nervous parents called the school, expressing concern for their daughters’ safety.
“It’s sick, it’s scary,” said Mr. Hikind, who gathered with other Jewish community leaders last week to discuss the attacks. “It’s like nothing I’ve experienced in my 31 years in office.”
But police officials cautioned that they had yet to see evidence of an organized game spreading among teenagers online, though they have been reluctant to rule out the possibility.
There is particular concern within the department that widespread coverage could create the atmosphere where such a “game” could take hold in New York.
Much news coverage of reported knockout attacks includes 2012 footage from a surveillance camera in Pittsburgh of James Addlespurger, a high school teacher who was 50, being swiftly struck to the ground by a young man walking down an alleyway with some friends. Yet the Pittsburgh police said the attacker insisted the assault was not part of any organized “game.”
“This was just a random act of violence,” Police Commander Eric Holmes said in a televised interview last year. “He stated that he was just having a bad day that day.” The assailant saw Mr. Addlespurger, the commander said, “and decided this was a course of action he was going to take.”
Telecasts have also shown teenagers in Jersey City, their faces blurred, describing knockouts, which they defined as anyone might; someone is struck and knocked out. But they did not report that it was a game.
Bob McHugh, a police spokesman in Jersey City, said there had not been a single reported knockout incident there.
“If there ever was an urban myth, this was it,” he said. Still community concerns spurred by the video prompted a member of the City Council there, Candice Osborne, to post on her Facebook page, “there have been NO reported instances of this type of assault.”
In nearby Hoboken, there was one report of a random assault; in September a man approached by three youths was punched, and died after his head became wedged in a fence between pickets. But Police Chief Anthony P. Falco Sr. of Hoboken said the attack appeared to have been isolated, an assertion repeated by Gene Rubino, a spokesman and assistant prosecutor in the Hudson County prosecutor’s office.
“We keep getting asked that question,” he said, of the Knockout Game, “and there is no noticeable trend.”
Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said much of the fear sown by the reports may have racial roots.
“There’s an element to who wants to see this through the lens of race,” he said. “The kids in Jersey probably set off racial alarms.”
Police officials in Syracuse said the city had seen two such attacks this year, each fatal, and they were on the lookout for more. The police said that at least one of the assailants said he was playing the Knockout Game.
“I think it’s very real,” Sgt. Tom Connellan said. “As opposed to a motive for assault, be it anger or robbery, this is strictly for a game.”