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An Underground Plague

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eye on the news

An Underground Plague

Already-hesitant riders will stay away from the subway unless the city and the MTA get control of crime. April 20, 2020
Covid-19
New York
Public safety

The past six weeks have been the hardest ever for the state-subsidized Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which recorded the first of at least 68 workplace deaths from Covid-19 starting in the second half of March. The MTA is also facing a scourge of violent crime. In little more than a month, the subway system saw three murders—more than the MTA has recorded in a single year for more than a decade. As Gotham prepares to reopen sometime soon, New York City’s NYPD and the MTA will have to make sure trains are safe not only from disease but also from crime, or riders will stay away.

March’s first subway murder occurred March 7, when New Yorkers were still going about their day-to-day lives, if with greater trepidation, as the city was announcing its first Covid-19 cases. An agitated individual with a long history of violent crime, Ramzidden Trowell, asked two people waiting for a train at a Soundview station in the Bronx to let him in to the system via the emergency-exit gate. They complied. Trowell than allegedly stabbed one of the young men, Rudolph Dunning, an aspiring fashion designer, to death. The NYPD, responsible for most subway-crime enforcement, arrested Trowell, who is currently detained at a Rikers Island jail.

Three weeks later, as New York grew accustomed to lockdown, Garrett Goble, a 36-year-old subway motorman with a wife and two small children, died in an overnight arson fire, rescuing passengers from debris in a shopping cart ignited in a train car. The fire not only killed Goble but also obliterated much of the train and the Harlem station. Police are reportedly building a case against Nathaniel Avinger, whose criminal record goes back to 1987. Prior to the March 27 fire, police had already arrested him twice in March, for property damage and criminal mischief, only to see him immediately released. Finally, in the first week of April, on the J train in Williamsburg, one man stabbed another to death; police are still investigating.

You’d have to go back three decades to find three subway murders in five weeks. Last year, the MTA saw three murders for the entire year. Yet the MTA didn’t start 2020 off well in the crime department. In January, with enforcement of fare-beating and other minor crimes way down, the subway system saw a 30 percent increase in major felonies, with robberies more than doubling. The trend persisted in February, with felonies up 34 percent and robberies up 80 percent.

The South Bronx experienced several brutal assaults in the first two months of the year. The suspect in one such case, charged with five counts of assault, including “intent to dismember,” is now out on bail. In investigating and trying to prevent violent crimes, police, pre-pandemic, had another headache: bail reform was forcing them to spend more time on at least one prodigious fare fraudster and alleged thief, who would commit minor crimes at Manhattan train stations only to be immediately released.

Consider these incidents warning signs of a crisis. According to MTA figures, subway ridership was down 92 percent in the last week of March, and bus ridership was down 98 percent. Yet transit crime, according to the NYPD, declined only 30 percent. For the month of March 2020, with fare revenue down 38 percent, felony crime was down only 3 percent; robberies were way up, to 51, from 33 in March 2019. When accounting for nearly nonexistent ridership, then, crime has soared.

Over the past month or so, the subway’s few remaining riders have had to contend with a greater risk of robbery or assault, as have transit workers. Two weeks ago, with no provocation or warning, a man assaulted an MTA worker with a golf club in a Queens subway station. With the NYPD both depleted by sick officers and scrambling to catch up with months of a more lax approach to crime pre-coronavirus, enforcement has fallen in various categories from 30 percent (civil summonses for farebeating) to 75 percent (arrests for the same offense). The drop in arrests for farebeating is especially telling: a fare-beater doesn’t generally risk arrest unless he is carrying a weapon, has outstanding warrants, or has a long rap sheet. Thus, more such individuals are entering the system. Last Friday, an alleged fare-beater in Harlem kicked an NYPD officer to the tracks as she tried to detain him, breaking her wrist.

Another problem that will deter ridership from returning: with nowhere else to go, thousands of adult homeless men, including many with mental-health problems, are using trains as shelters. Mayor Bill de Blasio, responsible for social services, never had a plan for what to do with homeless people during an infectious-disease outbreak. With libraries and seating areas in fast-food outlets closed, the homeless can’t even use their normal daytime resting spots as a refuge.

New York State and City now face the risk of a downward spiral as they prepare a return to normal: residents and commuters will hesitantly come back to the transit system, but their numbers won’t be great enough to deter crime. Passengers who do get on subways will feel greater discomfort at the number of homeless men using entire train benches as shelters. The lack of equilibrium could send passengers away, leaving the MTA and city in a worse economic and fiscal condition.

The MTA is attempting to tackle the crime problem. Even before the coronavirus hit, it was hiring 500 officers to its own MTA Police force, a separate entity from the NYPD. It’s now redeploying the earliest hires to the subways. The MTA is also hiring private security guards from Allied as well as civilian contractors from Sam Schwartz Engineering, who usually work above-ground directing pedestrians around construction projects, to serve as a “presence” in subway stations, starting in the Bronx.

The de Blasio administration needs to get serious about problems that it has long ignored: low-level lawlessness and homelessness on trains. The NYPD must strictly enforce fare-beating, to keep people who aren’t paying fares to get from one place to another off trains and platforms, where they can’t assault workers and customers. The city’s Department of Homeless Services must devise a more humane way to shelter men who can’t care for themselves—a chronic quality-of-life problem three months ago has become an acute public-health catastrophe now. With a better shelter option, one that doesn’t involve putting these men at greater risk of Covid-19 infection, the city can firmly tell people that they can’t sleep on trains or platforms. The MTA could perhaps impose a two-hour time limit on journeys.

If the city wants to see its mass-transit system come back to life, once it’s open again for business, it will need to get control of subway crime. New York must flatten this curve, too.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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