Random violence shocks even hardened New Yorkers

In a shocking random act of violence, New York City Fire Department Lieutenant Alison Russo-Elling, 61, was fatally stabbed while walking in uniform in Queens, NY mid-day on September 29. The attack was caught on surveillance video and shows Russo-Elling being knocked to the ground and stabbed 19 times by Peter Zisopoulos, 34. There was no prior contact between the two, and no known motive. The video can be viewed here. (Use discretion as the content is graphic).

Lt. Russo-Elling was a 9-11 responder to the World Trade Center terrorist attack and was just months from retirement. Her murder, and the randomness of it, has shocked even hardened New Yorkers. A news account of her murder can be read here

Zisopoulos reportedly has no criminal history but has a history of schizophrenia.

Zisopoulos chased a witness to the murder before returning to his apartment. He also attempted to secrete the knife and refused to surrender to police for about an hour. His actions were bizarre, and he likely does have mental health issues, but they were also the actions of a person aware of what he was doing, and aware that his actions were wrong. He has appropriately been charged with murder and is being held.

The murder highlights several issues facing public safety in 2022.

First — the randomness of violent crime, while difficult to quantify, appears to be on the rise. Reported incidents involving random assaults, robberies, and car jackings have become commonplace throughout the U.S. Until recently it was nearly unheard of for someone to walk up and sucker punch a stranger, or drive over a marching band in a parade, or push another person in front of an approaching subway car, etc. That has changed.

Second — the willingness of perpetrators to target our public safety officers. Police, Fire, and EMS personnel have been the targets of violent acts of violence — simply for the uniform they wear and the institutions they represent. Lt. Russo-Elling was murdered while wearing an identifiable Fire Department uniform which closely resembles a police uniform. She was obviously targeted due to her uniform.

Third — Lt. Russo-Elling’s murder demonstrates we have a violence problem, not a weapon of choice problem. Far too often we get locked in debate about the weapon used in violent crime, especially when that weapon is a firearm. Rarely if ever is there an issue raised when the weapon is a knife, a rock, or a car.

There are no easy solutions to the problems we face regarding violent crime in our country. It took years to degrade to this point and it will take years to fix. 

Long term solutions to issues plaguing our society — such as mental illness, chemical dependency, the breakdown of family structure, homelessness, a lack of empathy for others — are critically important to our long-term viability. However, they shouldn’t be viewed as an “either-or” proposition pitted against robust law enforcement and offender accountability.

If potential offenders fear being caught and punished promptly, while we work on long term solutions to address their motivations to offend, we all win. 

Both strategies support one another and over time both are doomed to failure without the other.