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Underground, a Pandemic of Lawlessness

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Underground, a Pandemic of Lawlessness

New York’s subways are much more dangerous than they were last year. July 21, 2020
New York
Public safety
Covid-19

New York’s subways are suffering from an old, familiar plague: broken windows. For the first half of the year, the Daily News reports, the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has recorded 485 smashed windows, costing nearly $300,000—including 47 destroyed on just one July day. The MTA has also lost $1.2 million worth of digital-screen property to vandalism this year. Old-time New Yorkers who rode the trains before their mid-1980s renaissance will remember spider-vein windows and doors as a ubiquitous part of commuting—along with something grimmer: the threat of violent crime. It’s no surprise, then, that a bloom of broken windows is coinciding with a surge in criminal attacks on people riding on or working in subways.

The pandemic’s first five weeks saw three murders in the subway system; now comes a fourth, the gruesome death of 57-year old Dwayne “Bilal” Brown, pushed to the subway tracks and killed by a train as he tried to break up a fight on a Harlem platform earlier this month. The last time New York’s subway system saw four murders in one year was in 2007—and 2020 is barely half over. Moreover, 2007 was an aberration. Over the past 23 years, the subways have seen an average of just over two people murdered each year.

New York has been roiled by pandemic for three full months now. The risk of being a crime victim on any given trip is low—well below 1 percent—just as it was, incidentally, during the highest-crime days of the 1980s and 1990. But the statistical probability has skyrocketed. In June, an essential worker riding the trains, or working among in the public in the transit system, faced six times the risk, relative to last June, of being robbed, and more than five times the risk of being assaulted. One emergency-room nurse has been assaulted twice on her commute this year, the first time getting hit in the face by an assailant and the second time being repeatedly beaten with a cane.

Low ridership, and fewer eyes on platforms and trains, has emboldened criminals. In June, only 905,000 passengers rode the subways daily, compared with more than 5.6 million in June 2019. Yet the number of robberies went down by only one, compared with last June, to 46, and the number of assaults by just three, to 19. The raw number of robberies has increased over the past three months, from 35 in May and 44 in April. The surge in violence is particularly remarkable considering that since the first week in May, subways have been shuttered to riders—for the first time ever—from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., hardly the safest hours to ride even during normal times.

Even if an essential rider doesn’t become a crime victim, he does suffer more delays due to disruption. In June, weekday train delays due to criminal or police activity accounted for 9 percent of train delays, up from 7.5 percent the previous June. In May, the figure was 13.7 percent of train delays, up from 9.3 percent the previous May. Across these two months, though ridership was just 13.1 percent of last year’s levels, delays due to human disruption—often caused by disoriented mentally ill homeless people who need professional help—were at 30.8 percent.

The system has seen a near-total absence of law enforcement. In June 2019, police officers wrote 7,075 summonses for infractions in the transit system, from walking between cars to taking up more than one seat. This June, the figure was 296—a 95.8 percent decline. Last June, police gave out 5,828 fare-evasion summonses. This June, the figure was 41, a 99.3 percent decline. Last June, police arrested, rather than summonsed, 218 people for fare evasion—an action they take only when a fare-evasion suspect won’t cooperate or is arrested in conjunction with other charges, such as weapons possession. This June, the grand total of fare-evasion arrests was . . . one. Across all transit infractions, enforcement in June was down anywhere from 83.6 percent to 99.5 percent, depending on the offense, a pace that has accelerated as the months pass.

Advocates for de-policing the subways claim that there is no evidence that fare-evaders or windows-smashers go on to commit bigger crimes, but at least two of this year’s four murder suspects evaded the fare to gain entry to the system; the first allegedly killed the man who let him through the exit gate. Every year until recently, police, in stopping fare evaders, keep people from bringing hundreds of illegal knives and guns into the subway system. The two men arrested for smashing windows last week have long criminal histories—including arrests for assault as well as criminal trespass.

There is no evidence that commuting workers who can’t pay the fare chronically jump over turnstiles and enter through exit gates. Chronic fare evasion is antisocial behavior; it can also be indicative of mental illness or homelessness. The homeless and mentally ill denizens of the transit system need firm signals that they cannot use the subway as a loitering spot, where they often disrupt trains by walking onto tracks, setting fires, or soiling cars. Unless they resist, police should not arrest them, but bring them to aboveground 24-hour drop-in centers, where they can receive competent help from the city, which spends billions of dollars annually on social and mental-health services. Closing the trains for four hours each night did not fix this problem.

Before the pandemic threw its finances into a crisis, the MTA was set to hire 500 new police officers to supplement the city-supervised NYPD officers who generally do this job. Now, with 140 new police personnel, the MTA has frozen any additional hiring. If Mayor de Blasio and other elected city officials won’t let the NYPD do its job, the MTA will have to do it—unfreezing its hiring in order to secure the system for its workers and riders. The MTA Police should collect better data, too, on how many violent criminals evaded the fare to gain entry to the transit system—and to law-abiding riders, whom they might rob or assault. It’s wrong to leave essential-worker commuters and subway employees to fend for themselves in a pandemic of lawlessness.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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