As riders start returning to buses and trains in cities across the United States, they are finding more crime and fewer police.
In New York City between April and July, more than 400 transit workers were battered, spit on, or threatened. In March, arson in the subway killed a conductor, injured 16 passengers, and destroyed a subway car. The suspect, arrested in December for groping a female MTA employee, had numerous felony and misdemeanor convictions. Just prior to the arson, he had been confined to a psychiatric hospital. Also in March, a rider broke into a conductor’s locked cab and attempted a sexual assault. In May, a woman broke into a conductor’s cab and stabbed him; another conductor was punched for asking a man not to ride between the cars. From June 28 to July 17, assaults in the subway were up 30 percent year-over-year.
Employees were not the only victims in New York. By late October, six male passengers had been murdered and five women raped; each category exceeds 2019 totals. Transit patrons have been punched, slashed, and pushed from platforms onto the electrified tracks by apparently homeless, mentally ill persons. The MTA reported an increase in people wandering on the tracks, endangering themselves and causing delays for the few riders who have returned to the system.
The reappearance of graffiti and the more than $400,000 required to repair smashed subway car doors and windows are proving that “broken windows,” aside from their implications for public order, are a costly and dangerous problem.
Yet the nearly 1,000 New York City police officers who helped remove homeless riders to enable overnight cleaning and disinfecting last year are gone, and the NYPD’s 85-member homeless-outreach unit has been disbanded. No problem, say city council members Stephen Levin (Brooklyn) and Helen Rosenthal (Manhattan), who introduced a bill prohibiting the NYPD from conducting homeless outreach. As Levin said in support of the bill, “Experiencing homelessness on the street or on the subway is not a crime.”
Homeless encampments in stations and on buses and trains will defeat the purpose of hundreds of millions of dollars spent on hygiene measures to allay riders’ concerns about Covid-19. Meantime, Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance hasn’t prosecuted fare-beaters since 2017, and Brooklyn’s Eric Gonzales favors pretrial-diversion programs for suspects arrested for minor offenses. Cleaning will not bring back riders afraid of being thrown in front of a moving train.
Saying that it needs at least $4 billion in federal funds, the MTA announced a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study ways to reduce the spread of Covid-19 on transit. The MTA should consider partnering with the NYPD to restore lost officers. Even better, it should assign many of its more than 600 police officers to patrol the subways, rather than continue to deploy them on commuter rail lines, where ridership is down almost 80 percent.
New York is not alone. Los Angeles, Seattle, and Minneapolis are among the cities cutting back on transit policing, often in favor of civilian ambassadors or outreach workers.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Agency, shifting police funds to homeless outreach, will dispatch social-work or mental-health personnel to homeless and substance-abuse calls, and will hire unarmed ambassadors to work in its stations. Three years ago, after two-thirds of female riders requested more police, and with violent crime contributing to ridership losses, the agency signed a $645.7 million, five-year contract with the Los Angeles Police Department, the County Sheriff’s Department, and the Long Beach Police Department to patrol its buses and trains. Funds for policing are very likely to be cut in 2022. The policies of newly elected district attorney George Gascon, who has vowed to end arrests for crimes like trespassing, disturbing the peace, and public intoxication, have also compromised public safety.
Sound Transit, the provider for Seattle and Tacoma, relies on King County Sheriff’s deputies, fare-enforcement officers, and ambassadors for policing. After a spate of violent crimes committed against light-rail passengers in 2019, riders thought more police were necessary; the agency disagreed. This year, given Covid-19-related ridership losses of about 85 percent, Sound Transit will replace its fare-enforcement officers with additional ambassadors, who will issue warnings rather than citations. However, a “poverty defense” law currently under review could derail even this weak attempt at maintaining order.
Minneapolis/St. Paul’s Metro Transit has for years wrestled with high crime and high fare evasion on its bus and light-rail system. Prosecutorial disinterest has meant that only about 3 percent of fare evaders pay fines. Transit Police reported that in 2019, violent crime—including rape, robbery, and aggravated assault—had increased 35 percent over 2018.
Train operators in the Twin Cities have briefed lawmakers about encountering drunks, drug users, needles, and half-naked people. Despite this, Metro Transit has decided to deploy unarmed ambassadors to check fares, connect homeless or mentally ill riders with services, and clamp down on smoking and drinking. With more than 150 Minneapolis Police Department officers retiring or resigning after this summer’s protests, Transit Police, already stretched thin, may be assigned to street patrols.
Agencies in two localities, however, are reversing the “defund and decriminalize” trend. The Chicago Transit Authority added about 50 officers to its 150-member Chicago Police Department Transit Unit after crime doubled this year. The unit commander noted that, though ridership is down as much as 85 percent, “the people that are driving the crime never left the system.” In California, the Orange County Transportation Authority overrode external demands to hire additional mental-health workers and to decriminalize fare evasion. Instead, the board increased funding for police.
Transit executives owe it to their riders and employees to be vocal in convincing politicians and prosecutors that fewer transit police will mean more crime, fewer riders, and more fiscal stress. Crime-plagued transit systems hurt any city’s economy, which will disproportionately harm those who rely on public transit to reach jobs, schools, grocery stores, and medical facilities.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images