There Can Never Be Enough Cops in the Subway
No amount of police can ever stem the "perception" of subway crime.
9:58 AM EDT on October 27, 2022
How many cops is enough cops for the New York City subway system?
In 1991, when there was 25 murders and more than 15,000 felonies committed underground, it was 1,200 officers patrolling the system every day, out of the 4,000 cops in the transit bureau.
In 2022, when we've had nine murders and around 1,700 felonies, it's a confusing mix of the 2,500 NYPD officers assigned to the transit system; an additional 1,000 NYPD officers not permanently assigned to transit but deployed in the system daily; dozens of officers from the MTA's own police force who are newly stationed at all the major transit hubs; and now, 1,200 more daily overtime shifts performed by NYPD cops. If this isn't enough, the MTA has also started hiring unarmed guards to stand at certain stations. (They don't have radios, but they presumably have their own cellphones to call for help.) Oh, and there's also a few state police officers thrown in. It's the most police to ever patrol the system.
"The added numbers of station inspections and train runs create an omnipresence that riders, at all hours, can see and feel as they make their way to school, work, or home," an NYPD spokesperson wrote Hell Gate in an email.
Flooding the subway with more cops has been a popular political posture for some years now. In 2019, former Governor Andrew Cuomo insisted on hiring 500 new MTA police officers, and then spent his remaining time in office using the issue as a cudgel against his nemesis in City Hall. (Almost 600 MTA police were eventually hired, at a significant expense, and there are now 1,135 on the force, an agency spokesperson said). Since January, Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams have been in lockstep calling for more police, with Adams pledging to double the amount of officers on patrol after the mass shooting in Sunset Park in April.
Last weekend, officials announced yet another surge. This time, the people responsible are openly acknowledging that this is more about "perception" than reality.
"We are nowhere near the bad old days of the '70s and the late '80s and early '90s. But we have to get our arms around the perception of subway safety that is based on, you know, some horrific incidents that have happened recently," MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber told reporters on Wednesday afternoon. "And we're reacting."
NYC Transit President Richard Davey recently conceded that adding more cops won't necessarily stop future "horrific incidents," because their presence hasn’t prevented recent ones. Cops were present at the scene of fatal shootings and shovings this year and weren't able to stop them.
Even Eric Adams, who started his tenure assuring New Yorkers that yes, he was afraid of the subway system, has begun to listen to people like Eric Adams and now speaks with more restraint. Overall crime stats are currently a mixed bag compared to the last few years (murders are down, felony assaults are way up) but major crime is down 70 percent from 1993. Major felony crimes are down four percent in the subways compared to 2019, but ridership is also deflated because of the pandemic.
While the rationale for our public officials calling for more subway cops might be intangible, the costs are not. Lieber told Hell Gate that the 1,200 extra overtime shifts the NYPD is running will probably cost in the "tens of millions," but declined to give a specific number, and referred us to the City and state, who are picking up the tab. Lieber also sidestepped our question about how the success or failure of the increased police presence will be graded.
All of this makes it next to impossible to assess whether filling the subways with ever more police actually, you know, works. "If we can't even measure the total level of the police force and the presence, you can't compare it to the past, and you can't do any kind of sensible policy analysis of, is this working?" Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst at Reinvent Albany, told us. "If the public doesn't have access to that basic information, you can't hold them accountable for knowing if that's the right solution."
The Independent Budget Office told us that the NYPD has currently spent a little more than $150 million in uniformed overtime in the first quarter of this fiscal year, and that the department is projected to (yet again) blow its overtime budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, spending $600 million when only $372 million was allotted. This is without accounting for the new subway overtime shifts (the NYPD's overall budget tops $11 billion).
Police officers in the subway aren't just looking at their phones: Arrests and summonses on the system are both up 50 percent compared to last year. Those stops for petty crimes disproportionately fall on Black and Latino New Yorkers, but the police must justify their presence, so the arrests continue.
The elected officials behind the new plan don't seem eager to answer questions about it. Hochul's office, who noted in a press release over the weekend that the new enhanced security would be paid for using the state's emergency fund, did not respond to our queries about how much the initiative is costing taxpayers, and how much of the burden the state will bear. In addition to the 1,200 overtime shifts, Hochul said she'd be opening up 50 new hospital beds for New Yorkers with mental illness—nearly half of the subway deaths this year have involved someone with a history of mental illness. The Mayor's Office also hasn't returned a request for comment.
How does a policy called "omnipresence" end? What state of affairs in the subway will prompt our leaders to redirect resources away from this strategy to things like improving transit service or building more housing for New Yorkers struggling with mental illness? Zero murders? A specific ratio of felonies to riders? Officials can't say.
Our leaders have deployed an overlapping dragnet, at an unknown cost, with no benchmark or metric for success, because people keep telling them that seeing police makes them feel safe, regardless of whether it actually makes them safer.
No amount of cops can ever stem the subway's "perception" problem, which is variously perpetuated by lazy local news stations, opportunistic politicians, and a reactionary tabloid press, all of whom will remain deeply invested in cultivating a narrative of subway disorder regardless of any steps taken to address it. The New York Post won't be mollified by more subway cops: The police aren't arresting enough people, it now says, and those people aren't being locked up on Rikers long enough, because our laws and our DAs are too soft.
So the mayor and governor spend hundreds of millions of dollars chasing ineffable feelings, while schools funding is slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars, and City agencies are paralyzed by budget cuts and hiring freezes. That's not perception. That's reality.
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