Home Subway Security New York Attorney General to lead inquiry into subway policing practices

New York Attorney General to lead inquiry into subway policing practices

by Benjamin Kabak

After a year of debate about cops in the subway, NY Attorney General Letitia James is investigating NYPD fare evasion enforcement.

Following a year of increased attention focused on the way the NYPD and MTA police patrol the subways, New York State Attorney General Leticia James announced an investigation into those policing practices last week. James said her office will examine whether the NYPD had been specifically targeting New York City’s “communities of color through its enforcement of the ‘theft of services’ law and the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) ‘fare evasion’ regulations,” according to a release her office sent out.

“We’ve all read the stories and seen the disturbing videos of men, women, and children being harassed, dragged away, and arrested by officers in our city’s subway system, which is why we are launching an investigation into this deeply troublesome conduct,” James said in a statement. “If groups of New Yorkers have been unfairly targeted because of the color of their skin, my office will not hesitate to take legal action. While we are hopeful that the NYPD will cooperate thoroughly with this investigation, we will not hesitate to use every investigative tool at our disposal to protect subway riders and the people of this city.”

James’ investigation caps off a year of an increased focus on the role of policing in the subway systems as the MTA Board grappled with a call by politicians to add 500 more cops to the subways and buses. Last fall, I examined the shifting rationale and tense debate, and in late December, the MTA Board approved the budget that included funding for the additional police. These officers will fall under the MTA umbrella, and not the NYPD, but this is a distinction lost on all but the most attuned New Yorkers. Thus, while MTA sources tell me they feel MTA officers will be more accountable and better managed by the transit agency, community activists fear that state (rather than city) oversight and a lack of body cameras on the officers will lead to different kinds of abuses.

With this discussion looming large, James’ office’s involvement also grew out of a recent New York Times article that explored how NYPD claimed in sworn affidavits that they had been pressured to target minority groups for low-level violations in the subway. Although NYPD officers claim they stopped this practice, James alleges otherwise. “Newly-published data indicates that this alleged policy may still continue today,” her office noted. “Between October 2017 and June 2019, black and Hispanic New Yorkers received almost 70-percent of all civil summonses for fare evasion, even though they only account for slightly more than half of the city’s population. During that same period, they made up nearly 90-percent of arrests for fare evasion.”

In announcing the investigation, James also released a letter she sent to the new police commissioner Dermot Shea asking for data the NYPD was supposed to make public [pdf]. Among other things, the letter requests accounting for all officers assigned to the subway, records and agreements with the MTA on fare evasion enforcement and detailed demographics break downs on fare evasion summonses and arrests. This is information the MTA Board has long requested of the NYPD and information the NYPD has been reluctant to release. James expects all documents by February 10.

The Attorney General’s press release contains a veritable who’s-who of New York politicians angling for higher office expressing support for the investigation. Scott Stringer, Corey Johnson and Eric Adams, all potential contenders in the 2021 mayoral race, lent their voices to the release, as did Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and State Senators Alessandra Biaggi and Julie Salazar. (Adams, though, seems to want to have his cake and eat it too as the former cop-turned-Brooklyn Borough President recently endorsed the decision to add 500 additional officers to the 2500 who already patrol the subways.)

Sources within the MTA have told me they welcome James’ intervention and that it does not undercut the argument for hiring more officers. The MTA has, as I mentioned, long pressed the NYPD to provide more detailed accounting of their fare enforcement activities, but as with many city-state divides, the local cops have resisted these requests. As the 500 new cops will be MTA officers, MTA sources feel they can better manage deployment practices and enforcement without being beholden to NYPD practices. As focus has shifted from fare evasion to misdemeanor numbers, some MTA officials are hoping the new officers will focus on stations and trains rather than simply congregating en masse at fare control. Whether this type of cultural shift can happen effectively will be something to watch as hiring increases over the next few weeks and months.

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10 comments

Peter L January 21, 2020 - 9:32 am

How do the practices of the NYPD compare to the practices of the old TAPD? I forget when the latter was merged in but it’s been … decades? Was the TAPD as aggressive with “turnstile jumpers” as the NYPD?

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Stephen January 21, 2020 - 11:29 am

I’d don’t the answer regarding fare evasion, but the 2 police departments merged in 1995.

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Adam Smith January 21, 2020 - 2:24 pm

The subways are dangerous and lawless. Please add more cops immediately before the situation spirals out of control. Thank you.

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VLM January 21, 2020 - 2:41 pm

[citation needed]

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Peter L January 22, 2020 - 10:05 am

Come on. It’s Adam Smith – all the crime is committed by invisible hands.

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Larry Penner January 21, 2020 - 8:20 pm

Current fare evasion of several hundred million uncollected annual bus and subway revenues continues to grow as our justice system offers no real penalties even if caught. No District Attorney will spend any time prosecuting violators. MTA faces a future multi year operating deficit of several billion. Without consequences, you can hire all the additional police you desire and it will still never make a significant difference in lost revenues.

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.

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SEAN January 21, 2020 - 8:59 pm

There’s away… every turnstyle needs to be of the high type where it couldn’t be jumped. However placing police at emergency exit doors could be effective in fare beating.

Case example… 23Rd street C & E downtown at 25TH Street entrance where all turnstyles are as described above. Wwhen I opened the emergency door to exit last week, I saw someone sneak in behind me prior to the door locking. Now if there was an officer there, that individual would have been dead to rights & would have been fined.

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Al D January 22, 2020 - 10:38 am

People just walk through the gates, and I see it all the time. A few months ago, a group of kids with bikes, about 12 or 13, just walked through the gates. I don’t know what their family makes. It doesn’t matter to me. Just pay your fare. That’s the current system of things. I don’t see the so-called “hard working poor” evading fares. I know people who are hard working, and they pay, just like most of the rest of the us.

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Gary January 22, 2020 - 2:43 pm

It’s really quite simple. Follow the rules and you won’t get arrested. Want to jump a turnstile? Don’t cry when you get arrested. Want to sell churros without a license? Don’t cry when you get arrested. Politicians pandering to criminals has to stop.

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Nathanael January 29, 2020 - 8:32 pm

In actual fact, current practice is “break the rules while white, and you won’t get arrested — follow the rules while black and you probably will get arrested on spurious charges”.

Something is rotten with the cops in NYC.

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