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Hochul Is Sending the National Guard Into the Subway to Search Your Bag Because of Vibes

Why bag searches? Hochul explained that the goal was to create a "psychological effect on would-be wrongdoers." 

Governor Kathy Hochul stands at a podium that says "Keeping our subways safe protecting New Yorkers"

(Susan Watts/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

More New York City Transit workers are being attacked on the job, but our subway system is historically very safe.

According to publicly available data, both of these things are true. Attacks on New York City Transit Workers have increased since 2019. Recent grisly attacks on train operators here in New York City are awful examples of a nationwide uptick in crimes against transit workers.

At the same time, serious crimes committed in our subway system have plummeted by 63 percent since 1997. According to NYPD data from 1997 through 2023, major felonies in the subway were lower last year than they were in 2022, as well as the pre-pandemic years of the de Blasio administration. Journalist Aaron Gordon compiled the numbers and made this handy chart for your reference:

The NYPD's most recent data from the last week of February, shows that transit crime is up 13 percent so far this year compared to the same time period of 2023, but down by 7 percent compared to 2022.

One might assume that this statistical background might inform how our elected officials make policy, and how that policy is implemented and communicated to the public. 

But on Wednesday morning, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that she was deploying the National Guard and the State Police to search New Yorkers' bags on the subway system, and that she didn't need to use any evidence to back up her decision. 

"I'm not here today to talk to you about numbers and tell you stats and statistics about what's going up and what's going down. I'm here to take action," Hochul said at the outset of her press conference, seemingly trying to head off questions from reporters that were ultimately never asked. "Rattling off statistics saying things are getting better doesn't make you feel better, especially when you've just heard about someone being slashed in the throat or thrown on the subway tracks. There's a psychological impact. People worry they could be next. Anxiety takes hold."

Hochul laid out a five-part plan for the subways that included more subway outreach teams to confront people staying in the subway system, installing more cameras on trains and platforms, and a new bill that would ban people convicted of assaulting other people in the system from using public transit (a bill already exists banning people who assault transit workers).

But the centerpiece was the announcement that 750 members of the National Guard and 250 State Police and MTA police officers would be searching bags on the subway. Asked if these searches wouldn't just generate the same racially disproportionate, unconstitutional stops for which the NYPD is infamous, Hochul waved away the concern, and said it was an "absolutely different dynamic." (The New York Civil Liberties Union and the Riders Alliance both disagree, and called Hochul's move "straight out of the Giuliani playbook," and one that would "undoubtedly target Black and brown riders in greater proportion.")

Why bag searches? Hochul explained that the goal was to create a "psychological effect on would-be wrongdoers." 

"People who are thinking about bringing a gun or a knife on the subway—at least this creates a deterrent effect. They might be thinking, You know what? It just may not be worth it because I listen to the mayor and I listen to the governor and they have a lot more people checking my bags," Hochul said. "That is what we hope will happen."

But what about the psychological effects on the 3 million-plus New Yorkers who take the train every day, who are being told by the governor that their mode of transit is dangerous, that it's in a state of "crisis"? That they should be afraid, no matter what the evidence says? We've asked the governor's office about this and will update if they respond.

For years, the "perception" of crime, if not actual evidence of crime, has been used by Governor Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams to flood the subways with police officers, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. It's far easier to fuel this feedback loop than level with New Yorkers that reality is complicated, and longer-lasting solutions are time-consuming.

One problem with vibes-based public safety policy is that it's empirically unfalsifiable. Do people feel more safe if you put 1,000 extra cops in the subways? Would they feel twice as safe if you put 2,000 extra cops in the subways? If a crime takes place in the subway during a surge of police, does that suggest that police presence isn't a solution to public fearfulness or does it just mean we need even more police? If the ratcheting up of police intrusion into commuters' lives isn't being driven by numbers, what are the conditions that would see this surge reversed?

Put another way: How long can New Yorkers expect to be searched on the subway system? The governor refused to say, and explained that she didn't want to aid any would-be assailants out there.

"It's gonna go how long we say it's necessary."

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