Former NYPD intelligence analyst and Manhattan Institute director of policing and public safety Hannah Meyers joins Brian Anderson to discuss last week’s subway attack in New York City, the intersection of homelessness, transit crime, and mental illness, and Eric Adams’s efforts to bring down crime in Gotham.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Hannah Meyers. She's the Director of Policing and Public Safety at the Manhattan Institute. Hannah formally worked for the NYPD as an intelligence analyst and team leader. She's here to discuss crime in the city from the attack on the subways perpetrated last week to the broader trends and perceptions of disorder. Hannah, thanks very much for joining us on 10 Blocks.
Hannah Meyers: Thank you for having me. Delighted.
Brian Anderson: Last week, as everybody knows, a man named Frank James launched an attack against strap hangers in a subway car and platform in Brooklyn. He was caught about 30 hours later following a lot of speculation about his motives and the alleged shortcomings of the investigation, including apparently malfunctioning security cameras. Now that the dust has settled, I wondered if you could explain where things are and what happened from the time James entered the subway system to the time he was caught 30 hours later.
Hannah Meyers: Sure. Coming from a counter-terrorism background as I do and a counter radicalization background, he is what you might call an angry loser. Someone who, he's 62 now, had decades of combative relationships with family and coworkers and neighbors, something that kept him just bouncing around from job to job and house to house. And then he moved online and for the last two decades had a lot of presence on social media, complaining about every possible race with every possible grievance and ideation for violent retribution, blacks, whites, Jews for sure, Latinos, Asians, a grievance against all of them. And more recently, against Mayor Adams and the subway system in New York and the mental health system and just about an education system. So we know that in 2011, he bought a handgun legally, a semiautomatic handgun in Ohio. And then more recently in Philadelphia where he'd been living, he bought a bunch of firecrackers and various things that he brought with him, drove a U-Haul from Philadelphia to the city that morning.
Hannah Meyers: He put on a construction vest and a hat and a disguise, and he took all this stuff and he got into a Manhattan bound in train in Brooklyn, went a few stops, then opened the smoke bomb canister as it was pulling into 36th Street Station and Sunset Park. And what seems like happened is then he dropped down toward the ground to maybe avoid the fog of the smoke, and from there fired off 33 rounds of this gun, miraculously only hitting 10 people. And probably because he was so low to the ground, only hitting legs and hands and not killing anybody, which is amazing and wonderful. But it seems like maybe that's the reason. And then escaping out of the station, taking off his disguise, leaving behind a duffle bag with a hatchet and a rope and undetonated devices. And then going on the lam essentially for 30 hours as you said. And it seems like what happened is the response was very clean and professional from there. The MTA officials, the people driving the trains, responded very clearheadedly to the chaos that they were seeing.
Hannah Meyers: They got passengers onto other trains, got them out of the station. Passengers helped each other get clear, emergency vehicles came very quickly, got people to the hospitals is another reason why we didn't see anybody die. And right away, all the law enforcement tools were there both from the NYPD and from FBI and all the different agencies that really work together very, very closely in New York, especially when there's something like this that has a terrorism angle, because if there's one thing we've learned since 9/11, it's that everyone has to work. All the agencies have to be sharing information at a really, really granular level, really, really together. And so right away, they found the U-Haul key that he left behind and a credit card that he left behind, and I think very rapidly identified him by those things. And NYPD has an incredible intelligence apparatus that in the last couple of years has really shifted from the jihadi terrorism focus that was so important and vital and urgent and immediate in the last couple of years, and more toward violent extremism.
Hannah Meyers: They have a whole team devoted to racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism. And a lot of that involves mining online activity that talks about New York, that talks about hate and makes plans of violence. So it was not hard for them I'm sure to connect once they very conveniently had his name and the identifying clues of the U-Haul and the credit card to identify who he was, I'm sure a long time before they announced it to everybody else. Then they circulated his picture. And it seems like the next morning, he wandered into a McDonald's in the east village blubbering and crying and used someone's phone and called in the tip on himself, Frank James did, and said, "I'll be wandering around here," and in fact did wander around the McDonald's in the east village. A number of people also saw him and called it in. And the police quickly zeroed in on him, took him in without incident. And he was charged in federal court in Brooklyn and Eastern district on terrorism related charges associated with mass attack in a subway system. And that's where we are right now.
Brian Anderson: Right.
Hannah Meyers: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian Anderson: Yeah. This was obviously a very extreme event, but in many ways, it's a microcosm of New York's growing problem of public safety. As you noted, James seems to be mentally ill. He had described his own experience in a Bronx mental health facility in one of his [inaudible 00:07:07]. He was disgusted with homelessness on the trains. He was also a serial offender, right? He had been arrested multiple times, I think nine previous times. So I wonder if those particular issues, mental illness, serious mental illness going untreated, homelessness on the trains and the repeat offender problems, are these in part responsible for the rising crime in New York City? And if so, how much progress has the city been making in turning things around here?
Hannah Meyers: What I think is so interesting about the subway attack and all the things that you're saying is that let's say that we have the best criminal justice policy as possible, intelligent and comprehensive and all working smoothly in New York City, it's possible that in this particular instance, James would've slipped through, still committed this crime, still gotten as far as he did. We don't know. It's not totally clear in this particular case. But as you say, he touches on every contentious point leaning to criminal justice policy in New York right now, mental illness, hate crimes, subway crimes, gun violence. And in all of these areas, what we do know is that there are so many missed opportunities, Swiss cheese holes of missed opportunities that we've created over the past few years through changes in policy, missed opportunities to identify and deter other people similar to Frank James in many ways who touched on these various problems who otherwise we could identify, put into treatment, put into supervision, incarcerate where necessary, and we've just piece by piece dismantled our ability to do that.
Hannah Meyers: And I think even though we talk about it more in policing, it is also very, very, very, very problematic in prosecution policy. And this is something that started before COVID and before George Floyd, where when you decriminalize, when you stop prosecuting a lot of the lower level offenses that are very commonly perpetrated by people that are connected to drug addiction and mental illness, we've taken away all of the leverage that we had through the criminal justice system to get people treated. If you look at a jurisdiction like Queens, they were I believe the first of the boroughs to have, and they all have now, alternatives to incarceration program where they have in house, in the DA's office, a whole system for identifying people who really need mental health treatment. And that could be ambulatory where they're getting it or residential where they're being held in to get the treatment, either way. But for decades, there was the ability to say to an offender's defense attorney, "Your client is going to be incarcerated, or you can choose treatment that's mandatory treatment."
Hannah Meyers: And it was very, very, very effective and it helped scores and scores and scores of people a year. Now, that's basically been dismantled. And you have the ATI alternative to incarceration twiddling their thumbs because defense attorneys know that if they just waited out, their client will be released. And a lot of that has to do with things like discovery reform that passed in 2020 in New York state that makes it so hard for line prosecutors in these offices to successfully bring cases and prosecute cases, it makes it so laborious that they just have to triage constantly. So purely getting the job that they are required to do done, it's not worth it to them to take the time to work on all these lower level cases and they'll often run out of time on the clock to assemble all the material that they'd need to get these cases prosecuted.
Hannah Meyers: So the defense attorneys know if they waited out, probably their client who robbed Duane Reade with a hypodermic needle in his hand to threaten people 20 times this year, he's probably going to get dismissed because the system isn't moving smoothly enough to allow prosecutors to get to that case. And what's so sad is that not only is it in the public's best interest, of course, for someone who is committing crime because of a drug addiction or because of mental illness to be in some supervised care, it's best for the public, but it's also best for the client. And look, defense attorneys, it's not necessarily their job to think about the whole life of their client, or it's not practically what they're willing to do, but very often what would happen is the families of people with addiction or mental illness would be the ones that would call in the police to report crimes that they were committing because they knew they didn't have the leverage over their family member to get them treatment and to keep them in treatment. But the judicial process did.
Hannah Meyers: And so that's one small example of ways that we are creating all these systems that we used to have to prevent these crimes before they happened.
Brian Anderson: Yeah. It's quite striking. The big question here is the mayor, Mayor Eric Adams, whose campaign was built around the idea of controlling crime. And he got elected in part based on that, I think chief lead based on that. But his promises to bring crime down, they've run into reality. Crime isn't down since he took office, it's continuing to rise. And looking at his record so far, it seems to be a mixed bag. So on the one hand, he's talking the right talk rhetorically, he's emphasizing the importance of quality-of-life policing again, he's announced a subway safety plan. He's talking about bringing down the homeless encampments and getting their residents into treatment. And he's pushed unsuccessfully so far for bail reform in Albany. But on the other hand, as Rafael Mangual, our colleague, has recently argued, he's attributed the crime spike to the availability of guns, which seems wrong. That's counter to evidence. Perceptions matter in politics and Adams' tenure is I think going to be defined by whether he makes New Yorkers feel safe once again, certainly that's going to be key to getting tourists coming back to the city.
Brian Anderson: So I wonder, I mean I realize he's only been in office for a short time, but what's your take on how he's doing so far and what effect this horrific attack might have on his plans going forward?
Hannah Meyers: I think all that you say is true. I mean crime is going up. I think maybe he came in hoping that just talking tougher and backing up the police in a lot of ways, at least rhetorically, would have a larger effect than it did in stopping and reversing the trend of crime which it hasn't really. I think it's good that he is talking about quality-of-life policing. He's very, very quick to say it is not broken windows, but I think the thinking of the quality of life policing mentality has to go further, especially because he has very little power himself to change the prosecution side of things. And the prosecution is a large part of the deterrence and consequences and incapacitation factors that prevent people from committing crime. If you have a gun and you know there's a mandatory minimum for carrying an illegal gun, it really factors into whether or not you're going to carry it around and whether or not you're going to shoot it.
Hannah Meyers: And I think we've seen, and this is another touch point of Frank James' attack, is that even people who are driven by grievances that go way past rationality are still rational in the decisions that they're making. And even with people who were more apparently mentally ill than Frank James who have committed violent crime in the last few months, Simon Martial who pushed Michelle Go to her death, Assamad Nash who stabbed Christina Lee to death, even they were making rational choices even if it's as small as not following home and trying to stab an enormous bodybuilder man, but instead choosing slight women to push or to follow home instead. There is a rationality behind it. So since the mayor can't increase the consequences from a prosecution side, I think it's important that he does increase it more from the law enforcement side. Another big factor in why gun violence has gone up is that there are fewer touch points with the police, points of engagement.
Hannah Meyers: When stop-and-frisk was more robust, it had a huge impact because people know, if you think there's a high chance that you're going to stop and chat with a cop, just chat with a cop. He's going to stop you and talk to you. It really changes the equation in whether you bring your gun out of your house with you, because the guns have been around a really long time. It's not that suddenly they got air dropped onto New York and now we have a problem. The guns are around and we can't vacuum suck them all up and lock them away. We need to go back to thinking about well what actually deterred people from carrying the guns around and shooting other people with them? And now, if you think no one's going to stop you, no one's going to talk to you, no one's going to... I mean it sounds minor, but it's a huge part of the equation of why people are carrying guns around. So more proactive policing where police are actually stepping in.
Hannah Meyers: And I think what we see in the subway is that in many ways, the subway is a microcosm cauldron of all the cause and effect aspects of criminal justice that we see above ground. So whereas for the last few years, not only if someone was evading fair would they not be stopped and bothered by police, but if you're smoking a joint on the subway car or a cigarette or K2, as I witnessed with my kids a little while back, or if you're acting erratically on the platform or just there lying down and doing no good, whereas we've seen for the last few years, police really were under a mandate from policymakers and also from New Yorkers who made it very clear, "We don't feel comfortable with you stepping in and doing anything." Now, I think increasingly, and I think this will have an effect that it has to be even more, they are going to step in and remove people from the trains.
Hannah Meyers: "It's not okay to smoke. I'm not just going to stand here while you smoke and hope that it makes you stop, I'm going to walk over and tell you it's not all right and if we have a problem, take you off the train and process you appropriately." And something with the subway plan that Mayor Adams put out with Governor Hochul is they put into place more healthcare workers, homeless outreach to go in and offer care. And I think one thing that needs to shift is to give that more edge. And this is something Nicole [inaudible 00:19:19] wrote about in her excellent piece about New York City subway crime over the last two years. But there has to be a little more... It's again just the leverage of the criminal justice system that not only helps public safety, but it helps people who are offenders or will be offenders get treatment, get care, get to somewhere they should be because we've seen, what, seven deaths in the subway system last year and the year before after having basically one death a year for a decade with twice the ridership.
Hannah Meyers: And a lot of those deaths are related to people who have mental illness or to homeless people who were the victims. And if police come along and say, "Hey, you're acting erratically in the train. I'm going to take you out of the train system right now," or, "Hey, you're sleeping here on the platform. This isn't a place to sleep. Let's find you somewhere else." It sounds minor, but that's how you prevent larger criminal actions and how you help New Yorkers thrive. And I think there has to be a mental shift among New Yorkers, which I'm hoping is happening especially with the subway tech, where instead of having this tunnel vision where they don't like that cops are escorting these sad cases out of the subway system because it's not nice, where they step back and say, "Actually criminal justice is a much more complicated, much more nuanced set of cause and effect and incentives and disincentives. And we need to be smart and leverage that for everybody's good."
Brian Anderson: By the end of the de Blasio years, police in New York City were pretty demoralized I would say, certainly the combination of the de Blasio administration and the criminal justice reforms that you've mentioned several times in Albany, which have made it harder for police to function in the city for sure. I wonder what's your sense? You used to work for the NYPD, you talked to police all the time. What is their feeling toward Adams and toward the situation in the city right now? Are they continuing to be demoralized or do they feel like maybe things are going to start turning in a more sensible direction?
Hannah Meyers: I think it's a mixed bag. I think there's a degree of demoralization that comes from the larger picture that involves prosecution, where okay, even if you have the go ahead to start arresting, you should be arresting shoplifters, you should be arresting people selling drugs on the street, you should be stepping in more. But then if you're going to see them back out on the street again the next day because you can't even arraign them on the spot under bail reform, there's scads of offenses that you have to just issue an arrestee a desk appearance ticket, which is a please come to court later card. And all these things are demoralizing when you've committed your life to helping with the public feel safe and enforcing the law and it's getting undermined. You can't clear cases. You can't have any lasting effect. I think that's a huge hurdle.
Hannah Meyers: But the rhetoric helps I think, and our fellow [inaudible 00:22:54] wrote a great paper about de-policing and how to combat that demoralization in a police force. And one thing that's really important is just feeling like you're supported internally, that your higher ups have your back. And also that the mayor has your back is a big deal. If city council really had your back, that would make you feel better. But I do think that that's significant.
Brian Anderson: Okay. Well thank you very much, Hannah. Don't forget to check out Hannah Meyers' work on the City Journal website, that's www.cityjournal.org, the link to her author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. As always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. And Hannah Meyers, thanks very, very much for coming on and talking today.
Hannah Meyers: Thank you for having me. This us an honor and a pleasure.
Photo by John Taggart For The Washington Post via Getty Images