Home Subway Security Blaming smart phones for an uptick in crime

Blaming smart phones for an uptick in crime

by Benjamin Kabak

As the MTA gears up for another round of board meetings this week after a six-week winter hiatus, the crime numbers are going to take center stage. Already, amNew York’s Theresa Juva has noted an uptick in subway crime, and as this is the first such increase since 2004 and only the second since 1997, subway watchers will try to figure out why.

The pure numbers themselves aren’t too shocking, and subway crime is still near all-time lows. Yet, the slight increase is there. The New York Police Department reported 36 more felony assaults in 2010 over 2009 and 91 more grand larcenies last year over the year before. Percentage-wise, felony assaults were up 23.2 percent, and grand larcenies were up 7.7 percent to 1269.

One of the key drivers behind the increase in grand larcenies, as the police noted in December, is the proliferation of smart phones. The New York Penal Code defines a grand larceny as the theft of “an access device which the person intends to use unlawfully to obtain telephone service.” In non-legalese, then, that means any time a perp robs another of any cell phone — a Droid, a Blackberry, an iPhone, you name it — it’s a grand larceny. As Raymond Diaz, head of the NYPD Transit Bureau chief, said last month, “The snatching of electronic devices seems to be our biggest concern with crime.”

In amNew York, Juva wonders if “the bad old days underground have returned.” While a seemingly natural question, it’s tough to look at these numbers and conclude so. Even as late as 1997, when the subways were far, far safer than they were in 1987, grand larcenies totaled 3463 or nearly three times as many as police recorded in 2010. That year, cops reported 17.04 major felonies per day, but even with the increase last year, the NYPD counted just 5.96 major felonies daily — out of five million weekday riders.

Cops and rider advocates pointed fingers in different directions. A police spokesman told amNew York that “teen-on-teen” crime is to blame for the increase in grand larcenies. After kids get out of school, they seem to like to take each other’s phones. “Deployments are designed to address after-school ridership when most teen on teen crime occurs,” the department said.

Others looked, naturally enough, at the decline of the station agent. “There are less eyes and ears in the system and many more things to take as more gadgets are displayed all over the place,” Transit Riders Council chair Andrew Albert said to Juva.

On the one hand, I can see why Albert wants to blame the decrease in station staffing levels. If someone’s iPod is snatched and no station agent is present, the victim must track down someone to help. By the time he or she reaches street level and can call the cops, the perpetrator is long gone. On the other hand, it sounds that most of these grand larcenies are of the snatch-and-go variety. Someone looking for an easy score grabs a phone out of their victim’s hands and then bolts out of the subway car as the doors close. The victim has no recourse whether a station agent is there or not.

As I wrote in October, I believe the increase in thefts to be a result of our obliviousness. As the subways are drastically safer today than they were 13 or 23 or 33 years ago, New Yorkers are more comfortable riding with luxury. We flash everything from Kindles to iPads to laptops and just assume that subway crime won’t happen to us. Toward the end of the year, grand larceny reports spiked, and that’s when people needed money the most. Cell phones are an easy target, and as long as riders stay aware of their surroundings, those numbers should decline naturally this year.

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Alon Levy January 24, 2011 - 3:18 am

Can we maybe wait a full year before calling it a trend?

Andrew January 24, 2011 - 6:45 am

This is not the “bad old days underground.” Subway riders in the 80’s and early 90’s had much greater fears than having their cell phones, or similar personal property, snatched.

Station agents are not and have never been security guards or police officers. Aside from the SCA program, which first began less than ten years ago, station agents have always been confined to their booths. They weren’t even aware of thefts that took place on the train or on most of the platform.

There’s no need for the victim to leave the station. Every station has at least one payphone, no? And if the crime took place on a train, every train has at least one crew member, most two.

The reason there have been more snatchings of electronic devices is that electronic devices have become far more commonplace, and with the proliferation of iPhones, Kindles, etc., more subway riders are keeping their electronic devices out in plain sight than before.

Jonathan R January 24, 2011 - 2:08 pm

I agree with you and Andrew. Thinking back 20 years, the MTA used to display posters that said to hide your good jewelry on the train and bus (turning the rings inside, for instance).

These days riders think nothing of pulling the ipad out and using it on the train. If it sells retail for $500, I suppose you could sell a stolen one for $50 (10%) at least, and $50 for a snatch-and-go seems like a pretty good return.

Al D January 25, 2011 - 2:36 pm

In amNew York, Juva wonders if “the bad old days underground have returned.”

Sensationalism (on the part of Ms. Juva, not you Ben!) and fear mongering. Please, Ms. Juva, I’ll watch Fox if I want this…

NYPD Transit Chief: Gadgets fueling increase in crime :: Second Ave. Sagas August 31, 2011 - 3:00 pm

[…] three or four months (January, April), those who cover the subways get to dust off the same old story about crime underground, […]


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