Home Subway Security It’s not just about the Churro Ladies

It’s not just about the Churro Ladies

by Benjamin Kabak

In what was, in hindsight, the unavoidable result of an ill-conceived plan to unleash 500 cops into the subways with little guidance and nearly no oversight, a video of NYPD officers handcuffing a churro vendor in the Broadway Junction subway station went viral over the weekend. You’ll see why when you watch the video.

For the past few days, the city of New York has spent countless hours defending the churro vendors and generally arguing over the under-the-table food vendors who can’t navigate the city’s labyrinthian and expensive permitting process. We’ve heard calls for the city to loosen permitting regulations and for the cops who are cracking down on this type of vending in the subway (even while serving as the churro ladies’ loyal customers) to scale back aggressive anti-churro enforcement. But it’s not just about the churro ladies.

Earlier this year, for reasons that I still haven’t quite worked out, Gov. Andrew Cuomo got the idea planted in his head that Something Had To Be Done About The Subways™. Too many people, he claimed, were evading the fare, and the subways just weren’t safe, the governor argued. The current coterie of cops wasn’t sufficient, and instead, despite major felony rates at just over 1 per 1 million riders and crime at near-record lows, the city and MTA absolutely had to add 500 additional officers.

Perhaps someone once again grabbed him by the lapels. Perhaps his spokespeople, who continue to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the subways are not safe yet, as Dani Lever did to The Times just last week, have been whispering sweet nothings into the Governor’s ear. But whatever the reason, the governor went to great pains to herald the arrival of 500 new cops, first on loan from the NYPD and eventually hired by the MTA as new officers. The June press release is important and instructive, a mash-up of reasons, excuses and tensions that come through and have been laid bare in recent weeks.

Cuomo’s release talks about three reasons for the increased police presence. Notably and unfortunately, assaults on transit workers have increased by 15% since 2013; fare evasion has spiked to supposedly a $240 million problem; and there “problems of public safety,” an open-ended sweeping claim. Said the governor, “The MTA is still plagued by problems of public safety, attacks against transit workers and persistent fare evasion – issues that have only worsened in recent years. This new multi-pronged effort will improve safety on the system overall, protect workers from these incomprehensible assaults, and deter fare evasion by deploying 500 new uniformed officers on our subways and buses.”

The mayor, a willing participant in this effort, echoed the governor’s statements. “The additional officers we’re deploying to the subway system will protect riders, prevent fare evasion and respond in emergencies,” Bill de Blasio said. The governor hasn’t ridden the subway since 2016, and the mayor has taken no more than a few token rides over the past year and change.

The statement I find most intriguing from the press release is from the outgoing NYPD Commissioner. “In 1990, there were nearly 17,500 transit crimes, compared to 2018, where there were 2,500 transit crimes, which is approximately one crime for every million riders,” James O’Neill said. “These additional officers will help us continue to reduce crime past already record lows, work with our partners to solve problems, and provide increased visibility to deter theft-of-service – all while preventing crime and disorder from occurring in the first place.”

But the rest of the release is a bit of a mess. It notes, without offering any evidence, that “the MTA fare evasion problem coupled with the growing reports of assaults on MTA workers has led to concern among many riders who believe there is a greater need for police presence in the subway and transit system.” And while the release discusses the real problem of assaults general harassment against transit workers, the bulk of the initiative is clearly focused around fare enforcement.

And so with this carte blanche permission to take over the subways, 500 NYPD officers have descended into the subway with predictable results. They gather at turnstiles; they tackle teenagers selling candy; they’ve been filmed attacking riders (and have been subsequently sued for $5 million or 1.8 million subway fares); they’ve harassed people sitting on benches. In each case, cops claim after the fact that subjects were failing to cooperate and obstructing governmental administration, excuses that legally act to excuse a wide range of otherwise socially unacceptable police behavior. In a city still smarting from years of a very controversial stop-and-frisk policy, nothing we’ve seen unfold comes as any sort of surprise, and this litany of incidents is barely scratching the surface.

At this point, the dialogue has moved far beyond protecting transit workers, and even the cops, standing around bored and playing with their phones at Canal St., have admitted they’re focused on amorphous quality-of-life offense and fare evasion.

Imagine my surprise then when Edwin Delatorre, the NYPD’s Chief of Transit, sat in front of the MTA Board this week and said, “I also want to make clear, there is no NYPD crackdown on fare evasion.” Simply put, that’s a lie. That’s a lie based on Cuomo’s press release; that’s a lie based on what the cops themselves say; and that’s a lie based upon the lived experiences of every New Yorker who’s ridden the subway since June.

Now, the case for 500 new MTA cops has never been a compelling one, and the obfuscation around the problems that have arisen has made everything worse. Rachael Fauss penned an extensive takedown of the rationales behind the push for more cops for Gotham Gazette. The non-partisan Citizens Budget Commission has detailed how adding 500 new MTA police officers will cost the cash-strapped MTA nearly $900 million over the next ten years, dollars that will come out of the budget in the form of fare hikes or service cuts. Meanwhile, the MTA’s own inspector general has noted that the agency’s fare evasion numbers seem unreliable at best, and TransitCenter has raised similar concerns. For its part, the MTA has never bothered to baseline an acceptable rate of fare evasion or issue a cost-benefit analysis explaining how much it costs to capture lost fare revenue on a dollar-to-dollar basis. Eventually, it costs more than the captured fares to push evasion down to zero, and every transit agency accepts some amount of fare bleed. And what of the transit workers? Their assaults have nearly vanished as cops have seemingly focused everywhere other than there.

Predictably, the governor and mayor have each doubled down on defending this plan. The governor simply repeated his unfounded claims that the subways aren’t safe (a claim O’Neill recently took to the pages of The Post to dispute in print) while the mayor claimed 75 out 100 subway riders are simply clamoring for more cops.

In a vacuum, the mayor’s statement may not be wrong, but should those cops come without limits? Should they come at the expense of investment in service? Should they come with the videos that have made the rounds lately and the conflicts that are emerging between New Yorkers, and especially minority communities, and the police who seem intent on picking on them on the subways? Council Member Antonio Reynoso summed up the problems in a statement:

“The recent incidents of excessive use of force and broken windows policing are a predictable outcome of unleashing an additional five hundred officers into the MTA system at a time when we have record low crime rates in the City of New York. This is all the more concerning when the governor has explicitly stated that these officers have been deployed specifically to combat fare beating, an offense that very often stems directly from poverty. The recent arrests of women selling churros in the subway is a particularly egregious example of enforcement targeting vulnerable members of our society for offenses that stem from economic insecurity.

This all seems to be building to a head, and earlier this week, Cuomo, who started this whole thing, accidentally stumbled into something when he said during a NY1 interview that “the real issue is the relationship between the police and the community, and that’s what has to be fixed here.” That’s right, but that was also right five months ago before Cuomo decided to unleash the cops into the subways, and that’s something that should have been considered by the MTA and the governor and mayor before this exploded into general unrest and increased tensions across the transit network.

So where does the city go from here? One path leads New York into a dark place where the lessons of Fruitvale Station and the death of Oscar Grant are learned anew in a different city under different circumstances. The other involves a reset and pullback from the current situation. It involves maturity and a recognition by the governor and mayor and MTA Board that this was handled poorly from the start. It involves reducing the purview of this crackdown to true quality-of-life offenses. It involves prioritizing the safety of transit workers, and especially of those on buses where most assaults occur, first, and homeless outreach second, before Churro Ladies, candy vendors and people sitting on benches come under the microscope. It involves honesty in the fare hike debate, and an enforcement effort that’s rational with real goals and with a real commitment by the city to expand Fair Fares and redesign fare control areas to increase accessibility while incorporating best-in-class designs that include taller and wider fare gates and fewer unstaffed emergency exits. It involves a recognition that maintaining quality of life in the subways is important, but it also involves an acceptance that the MTA’s current summons-based enforcement, rather than criminalizing trivial acts that aren’t arrest-worthy offenses, should be sufficient.

It’s not hard to get this right so that vulnerable communities don’t feel unfairly targeted and so that our politicians aren’t constantly trying to convince the public, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the subways aren’t safe. It requires two stubborn leaders to admit they weren’t right in the first place, and it requires honesty about the NYPD’s relationship with the people it’s supposed to protect. It’s not in the end just about the churro ladies, and it’s not too late to get it right. But without a political reckoning, it sure is getting late early.

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19 comments

Alon Levy November 14, 2019 - 1:19 am

Silly question: do we know that the $240 million figure is accurate? More than half of that is on buses, and anecdotally drivers are more likely to let passengers board without paying if there’s a wave of passengers connecting from the subway. Are we sure that the roughly 55% of this cost figure that comes from buses is actual lost revenue?

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Nora November 14, 2019 - 9:10 am

We don’t. Even MTA’s IG isn’t sure–Ben has the report link. (Press coverage: https://www.amny.com/transit/mta-far-evasion-1.36221340/)

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Larry Littlefield November 14, 2019 - 9:58 am

Ridership is measured by fares paid. Fare evasion was used to explain part of the decline in ridership.

But now ridership is increasing. So maybe they are on to something. Or maybe not.

They can always adjust service based on fares paid to find out.

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Larry Penner November 14, 2019 - 8:36 am

There are more important issues riders have to deal with than legal or illegal immigrant vendors selling products in the subways. The same is true for transit police. Riders have to deal with conductors who close the doors while crossing the platform attempting to transfer from a local to the express train. Try looking for the proper way to depose of your old newspaper as more trash cans are removed from more stations. Riders have to deal with aggressive panhandlers, eating as if one is at home or restaurant, those hogging two seats, yawning, coughing or sneezing without covering up, the release of flatulence and acrobatic performers swinging from subway car poles or homeless people riding back and forth with their meager possessions by their side taking up several seats. Women are periodically accosted by gropers while perverts engage in other unhealthy sexual activities.

Many have grown tired dealing with rats, mice and litter. NYC Transit should consider installing separate cans for recycling newspapers, plastic and glass along with regular garbage. Selling advertising on the side of cans could generate revenue to help cover the costs of more frequent off-peak and late-night collection and disposal. .

Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.

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Jeremiah Clemente November 17, 2019 - 8:08 am

As for the conductors closing doors while crossing platforms, current MTA rules prohibit holding trains for connections during rush hours to avoid delaying trains. One small delay for 10-30 seconds could delays 8-10 trains as well as 10,000 passengers behind them.

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AMH November 19, 2019 - 11:59 am

Indeed, but so many times outside of rush hour you get the doors slammed in your face only to wait 10-15 minutes for the next train.

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Larry Littlefield November 14, 2019 - 9:52 am

Even if there are real problems, I do not accept that 500 additional officers (1200 in total eventually including the early retired) are needed to address them.

NYC has 2.2 times more officers, relative to its population, and more than anywhere else save Washington DC.

https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2019/10/13/public-safety-census-of-governments-employment-and-payroll-data-for-2017/

I think what is behind this is more dues paying members, patronage. Like the big increase in out of classroom assignments for teachers.

This is Tammany Hall stuff, with the cost hidden and deferred to a future when both Cuomo and DeBlasio will be living off public pensions that are exempt from state and local income taxes.

Somehow in this “progressive” era, it seems the Police Officers and Corrections Officers can be questioned as far as their cost and fairness to the rest of us. But somehow only them.

OK, so start with them. Why is it that the NYPD says it can’t, or won’t, keep us safe for a mere double the national average number of officers relative to population? Why does the city intend to borrow billions to pay TEN TIMES (at least) the cost of a luxury condominium per square foot for new jails?

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Larry Littlefield November 14, 2019 - 9:56 am

This is all about generational misdirection.

Why are we facing fare increases and service cuts?

1) Overtime by CURRENT workers.
2) Fare evasion by current riders.

And certainly not…

1) Generation Greed’s debts.
2) Generation Greed’s retroactively increased pensions.
3) A couple of decades of low fares for past riders after the addition of MetroCard.
4) Three decades of near zero general revenue for the MTA Capital Plan, for which costs didn’t matter because it was “free.”

OK Boomer.

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Bill November 14, 2019 - 3:58 pm

Pretty ironic that Cuomo is up in arms about fare evasion when he’s installing emergency exit gates you can reach over and pop open in his new station improvement vanity projects.

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Phantom November 15, 2019 - 7:17 am

Since the new, catastrophically bad design exit/entrances were installed at Bay Ridge Avenue station, there has been a visible increase in fare beating. There used to be minimal fare beating there, now there is a noticeable stream of fare beaters there in full view of the paying passengers on the Manhattan bound platform.

There appears to be zero attempt at enforcement over the past year and a half or so

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AMH November 19, 2019 - 12:02 pm

Yes exactly. I have noticed that some of these stations have been retrofitted with barriers that make it harder to reach over but which spoil the streamlined “Cu-WOW-mo” aesthetic.

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Adam Smith November 14, 2019 - 4:07 pm

We need around 1,000 more cops in the Subway. Currently, it is dangerous and unsafe with thieves everywhere. I fully support the NYPD.

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ChrisC November 14, 2019 - 9:06 pm

Not every issue on the MTA needs the immediate attention of a police officer. Not everyone who breaks the rules should be criminalised – and not every infraction should even be a criminal offence.

‘Churro Lady’ should have initially been dealt with by MTA staff asking her to leave and the cops only called if she repeatedly refused or started getting beligerent. Just as ‘BART sandwich man’ should have been dealt with by station staff not by a police offier who then apparently over-reacted and arrested him (but not others who were also eating in a station)

BTW on several of my visits to NYC I’ve seen police buying food and drinks from these types of stalls so they either allow them or they dont but you can’t allow some but not others.

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SEAN November 15, 2019 - 10:03 am

BTW on several of my visits to NYC I’ve seen police buying food and drinks from these types of stalls so they either allow them or they dont but you can’t allow some but not others.

To play devils advocate… did the owners of the stalls that the cops buy their food from slip a few bucks to these said officers & in return the vender receives protection from violations or arrest?

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ChrisC November 15, 2019 - 12:42 pm

Well I do recall the Officers handing over $$$.

Now whether or not that covered the full price is a different matter!

But if they got it for free as some sort of corrupt ‘protection’ deal then that’s arguablly worse than the stall beign there in the first place.

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Yal November 20, 2019 - 6:00 pm

Churro lady was dealt with many times prior to the event and refused to follow instruction. That was not her first encounter with the cops. She was ticketed at least 5 times prior for the same offense.

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The Hunkster November 16, 2019 - 6:14 am

That’s#CuomosMTA in a nutshell: Ruining the wellbeing of riders, workers, the homeless and the venders since 2011.

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Rob November 18, 2019 - 8:21 am

If u r so hot under the collar abt this, why do we need all the ass’t conductors and ‘brakemen’ on all the commuter trains?

PS Who are ‘vulnerable communities’?

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AMH November 19, 2019 - 12:32 pm

This is all spot-on. While I wish there were a way to police things that actually degrade service like door-blocking, stair-blocking, turnstile-blocking, etc. the NYPD cause more problems than they solve and their sheer numbers are causing congestion in the stations these days. I may be imagining this but it sure seems like NYPD-related train delays are up. I really don’t understand why De Blasio is shilling for Cuomo on this one.

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