In 1980, through the first eight months of the year, the crime-riddled New York City subway system witnessed 15 murders, up from ten over the first eight months of 1979. Saturday morning’s murder on the D train was just the second such incident of 2009. It’s no wonder, then, that three days later, the city’s news outlets are still buzzing with features and stories about the underground killing.
While we explored the lessons riders could learn from this murder, the police response to an on-board crime in a subway car filled with people has led to some debate as well. After Gerardo Sanchez allegedly stabbed Dwight Johnson and the subway conductor and police were alerted to the crime, the subway car doors were sealed. Passengers were left inside with the killer for a few minutes until police could secure the area to ensure that Sanchez would not be able to escape.
Yesterday, facing some criticism over the decision to leave innocent bystanders in a car with a knife-wielding killer, NYPD Commissioner Tom Kelly defended the decision:
Kelly said the NYPD took the right steps early Saturday morning to contain Gerardo Sanchez, a Bronx man accused of stabbing Dwight Johnson to death over a subway seat on the D train. “They [the passengers] pulled the alarm, they stopped the train between stations. As a result of that, when the train pulled into the station, officers were there, they got on the train and arrested the individual,” Kelly said.
The decision to keep all of the train doors locked except one while police took a few additional minutes to arrest the alleged killer as about 30 horrified passengers looked on was met with questions about police policy and procedure..
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the train was immediately met by police — and he dismissed questions that police left passengers locked in the subway car with a murderer — again noting that a passenger had pulled the emergency cord that had briefly stopped the train in the tunnel. He said police boarded the train through one open door in the front as soon as it was in the station. “Opening all doors and letting everybody run in every direction and having a murderer back out on the streets doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” he said..
Meanwhile, the Daily News did one of its person-on-the-street stories, and those quotes featured for print all were critical of the decision. Just one person — a lawyer, to boot — defended the MTA. “It shows people in the future that if you commit a crime on the train, you’re going to get caught,” Leo Genn said. “My instinct is they did the right thing.”
The Post takes a more critical approach. The problem, the paper alleges, stemmed from the person who decided to pull the emergency brake. In a statement to Gothamist, Charles Seaton clarified Transit’s view on the pulling cord. “Use the emergency cord only to prevent an accident or injury…” the Transit spokesman said. “But if your train is between stations and someone aboard becomes ill, do not pull the emergency cord. The train will stop, preventing medical professionals from reaching the sick passenger. A sick person is better off if the train goes to the nearest station where police and medical services will be waiting or can be quickly summoned, without interruption.”
With crime down in the subways, riders are accustomed to police responses and emergency brake procedures. Murders almost never happen underground these days, and the attention this one has garnered is just proof positive of the progress the city has made in combating subway crime over the last 30 years. I think the police acted expeditiously to catch a killer, and I hope the 20-30 people in the D train on Saturday morning recognize that. Still, it must have been one terrifying experience.