Home View from Underground If you see something, don’t say anything

If you see something, don’t say anything

by Benjamin Kabak

During my Criminal Law class on Monday afternoon, my professor talked about the concept of criminal liability when a person fails to act. If I view a crime or have knowledge of one occurring, am I under a legal obligation to do anything about it? While the law generally says no, our societal concepts of morality say to act.

That is, unless you are Mireya Navarro or one of the many passengers riding the 2 train with her on Sunday night. In a City Room post published yesterday as I was sitting in that very same criminal law class, Navarro told her sordid subway tale of a group of passengers who witnessed something so gross and banded together not to tell anyone. Call it Real World: IRT.

On the way to Brooklyn from Manhattan around 7:30 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, a disheveled man walked into a No. 2 subway train making a stop at Canal Street. No one paid much attention as the man lay down on a row of seats to take a nap. The complete strangers around him did not realize he would soon force them to come together to make a practical decision.

The man, his eyes still closed, sat up a couple of stops later, opened his fly and urinated. From a seated position, he thoroughly soaked his vicinity, and the half-full car emptied out in the middle as his fellow passengers — including this reporter — fled in both directions.

In a next-door car where some of the escaping riders had reassembled, some shook their heads, visibly jarred, and one commented that this was a first. Then a debate ensued about the right course of action to take. I said I would be getting off the train soon and would report the man’s actions to the proper authorities. They should remove him, I argued, before other unsuspecting riders walked into the car and had to deal with him and the mess.

The consensus seemed to be that this was a bad idea. “All they’ll do is take the train out of service, and we’ll all be stuck,” a woman said.

In the end, Navarro opted against telling anyone. The urine-infected 2 train continued south through Brooklyn until it reached its Flatbush Ave./Brooklyn College terminus. What happened at that point is anyone’s guess.

At first blush, Navarro’s actions seem pretty inexcusable. Egged on by a crowd too self-centered to be inconvenienced for a few minutes while the police attended to an unsanitary and illegal situation, Navarro opted not to report the conditions in this subway car. Instead, she let the man and wrote about it for The Times the next day under the guise of a “Only in New York” story.

On the other hand, though, the cost/benefit analysis of telling someone may prove Navarro correct. At least, that’s what City Room commenter J said in his response to this sordid affair. By telling someone, the train would be delayed; the line would get backed up; and everyone would have to wait a few more minutes before they get home.

So what is it then? Do you tell or not? I’ve been in a similar situation but not to this extreme. I’ve witnessed cars empty out when people realize the stench, but I’ve never seen someone urinate in a train car in the middle of the evening. I have never said anything though because by the time I leave the subway, it’s not my problem anymore. I’m where I need to be, and the incident remains a stinky memory.

To this, I do not know the answer. Navarro and the herd in her 2 train opted not to tell for mostly selfish reasons, and that’s the New York subway attitude.

Photo Credit: An ever-present MTA sign urges riders to say something if they see — or smell — something. (By flickr user ZeroOne.)

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tacony palmyra February 3, 2009 - 3:54 am

“A few minutes”? The sick passenger/police action delays I’ve encountered have been pretty extreme. In one case we were held in the station on the 2 train for more than an hour and a half after some sort of gang initiation-esque assault of random passengers by a group of teenagers. If it were a couple minutes it wouldn’t be a big deal, but I think the procedure seems to be for the train conductor to stop the train at the current station instead of radioing ahead to have personnel intervene at one of the coming stops. And during off hours it seems to take an inordinate amount of time for them to arrive. I’d assume there aren’t a ton of staff available during Super Bowl Sunday, they’ll take their good time getting there, and coaxing some bum off the subway without violating the guy’s civil rights and exposing the MTA to lawsuit could take a while.

So I think you’re downplaying how significant the time cost to the random passenger can be.

Ray February 3, 2009 - 6:32 am

It sounds heartless in the winter to consider ejecting the homeless as there are so many mentally ill people among them without faculties to guide themselves to aid.
Yet public transport is a shared space and its not designed to be a homeless shelter. The economy (and MTA budget) will continue to put more and more riders into the system. At the same the disintegrating economy will put pressure on the system to serve as something other than what it was designed to be. I believe we can’t allow this clash underground to continue to unfold.

As tacony suggests above, it is time to put resources in place such that this problem is dealt with while not seriously inconveniencing the smooth operations of the system. We should be demanding access to responsible, highly visible and active mitigation of these alternative uses. It’s time to connect MTA employees and the riding public with the network of CITY social service agencies and equip them to respond. It is city social service personnel (with the assistance of the police) who should be patrolling trains and stations and guiding (or removing) homeless to shelters. They should be put in the position to rapidly deal with someone who chooses or finds themselves to “living” underground. Excuses aside (it may delay ones ride home) it just seems we are tolerant to a fault. We and the homeless deserve better.

I don’t know about you, but for $2.00 per ride, my expectations are not grand – yet, it surely does not include riding home while standing in someone’s urine. Let’s have a plan in place and soon Mr. Mayor.

Marc E February 3, 2009 - 7:41 am

I’ll have to agree with you there. While this may be an excellent example of groupthink and the nature of most people, there is still the fundamental issue that indicates that the process for resolving this conflict is simply broken. While these folks may have the moral conviction to report this sort of a crime for the comfort of other passengers and because it’s ‘the right thing to do’, the process and subsequent consequences, from delays to displaced homeless in cold weather, discourages people from taking action, except perhaps for the most altruistic of us.

rhywun February 3, 2009 - 8:32 am

Have to agree with the others. The disincentive to report anything is just too great with the way the MTA currently handles these sorts of situations. We’ve ALL have tales to tell.

@Ray, they DO have social services underground. At least according to signs I (used to) see everywhere.

kynes February 3, 2009 - 10:10 am

“infected” with urine is a little inaccurate considering urine is completely sterile. But I agree 100% with tacony on this one, it isn’t a few minutes its a very long time and the stations are very cold this time of year.

HLS 1L February 3, 2009 - 3:28 pm

Where do you go to school?

Benjamin Kabak February 3, 2009 - 3:28 pm

NYU. I take it you’re at HLS?

HLS 1L February 3, 2009 - 3:31 pm

Hence the handle! I decided to take a break from occupancy in animals ferae naturae (obviously the best part of my week, I mean really) by checking out your blog. Good luck with the work.

The Secret Conductor February 4, 2009 - 5:10 am


First of all, did anybody notice that the reporter would tell the authorities AS SOON AS he got off the train? Second of all, yes passegenrs mostly know the deal. Urine i a train car is treated as hazardous waste (like blood) and the train would have been put out of service OR the car would have been sealed off depending on if there is a train right behind and other factors.

I have heard (mostly by people who are GETTING OFF THE TRAIN because they are at their stop) people complain about smoking, fights, drunks, jerking off, stink, yelling and so forth…

I perfer they tell me than not and then have this person do something else. For the most part I do what everybody else does; move to another car. If I see people moving from one car to another at every stop, I call control (passenger interferance) and ask for someone to meet me and a station further up the line.


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