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.
Tonight as I was leaving Broadway Junction, I saw three or four police officers (one of them was either a plainclothes cop or someone who worked at the station) gathered around a crying woman and her churro cart. Apparently, it's illegal to sell food inside train stations. 1/? pic.twitter.com/sgQVvSHUik
— Sofia B. Newman (@SofiaBNewman) November 9, 2019
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.
“You guys part of the new fare evasion crackdown?”
— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) October 10, 2019
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.
.@NYGovCuomo, today: “The feeling that subways are unsafe is up. I’m hearing it all over, and I think the additional MTA police will be helpful in that regard.”
— Jimmy Vielkind (@JimmyVielkind) November 11, 2019
— katie honan (@katie_honan) November 12, 2019
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.