It is a vision I have never been able to get out of my head. I was a child growing up in Brownsville when my dad ran to our neighbor’s house next door one night after he heard Ms. Johnson screaming.
We all thought it was a burglar. As it turns out, it was an intruder — but not a human. It was a rat.
The rodent had climbed into the crib of her sleeping 5-month-old baby. The child had dried milk on his mouth and the rat, searching for food, was chewing on his face. Ms. Johnson turned on the light after hearing sounds coming from her baby’s room and was horrified by what she saw. Though she was eventually able to scare the rat away, Ms. Johnson’s son went through childhood with a scar on his lip.
As a police officer, I encountered these kinds of situations far too often in poorer communities. But while our targeted approach to crime yielded dramatic drops in robberies, assaults and murders, our rat problem has continued unabated. And over the past few years, it’s only gotten worse.
For the second year in a row, Brooklyn held the unfortunate distinction of logging more rat-related 311 complaints than any other borough in New York City. 6,500 Brooklynites reported rat sightings in their neighborhood last year — in neighborhoods as diverse as Prospect Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick, according to a study by RentHop. Overall, rat complaints have skyrocketed in recent years, up to 17,353 last year from 12,617 in 2014.
This is not an issue of ideology. This is an issue of human decency. As the City Council’s Health Committee Chair Mark Levine stated, “Rats are not only a detriment to quality of life, but also to public health and safety.”
This holds true particularly in communities of color. Just last year, video footage taken from inside a NYCHA development showed rats clambering over kitchen counters and surfacing through apartment toilets. A 1-year-old baby was even bitten, causing him to be hospitalized. For too many families living in public housing and disinvested communities across the borough and city, rats are a regular presence in their neighborhoods and their buildings. To take one example, while meeting with NYCHA officials recently, we learned that a plumber had discovered a rat nest in the ceiling of one apartment and ended up hauling away 40 bags of rats.
Let’s be clear: Rats are a genuine public health menace. A Columbia School of Public Health study found that rats in New York City carry bacterial pathogens including E. coli, Salmonella, C. difficile. Some were even found to carry Seoul hantavirus, which causes hemorrhagic fever and kidney failure. In 2017, two people were severely sickened and one was killed after contracting leptospirosis, a disease that can be transmitted via rat urine.
Rat infestations also degrade our infrastructure. It’s estimated that rats cause $19 billion worth of damage each year in the U.S. In cities like New York, they can burrow under sidewalks, causing them to buckle and crack, and chew through telephone wires, causing widespread outages.
The devices we unveiled at Borough Hall the other week, which lure rats into an enclosed space and drop them into a vinegar and alcohol solution, aren’t meant to be a silver bullet. A comprehensive rat mitigation plan will include other methods of dealing with the exploding rat population, like dry ice and, if it proves effective, sterilization. We should also take a more proactive approach by overhauling the way we manage sanitation and trash pickup so it doesn’t attract rodents. The fact is, the piles of garbage we leave festering on our sidewalks for so long are an open invitation to infestation. And the mesh baskets that line our street corners are overflowing with trash, which only adds to the problem.
The bottom line is, too many families across the city are still being traumatized by the sight of rodents, just like Ms. Johnson was all those years ago. While I am empathetic to the concerns of animal rights advocates, my background in public safety has taught me to always put the protection of children and families first.
Eric Adams is Brooklyn borough president.