How to get on track to making our subways safer

Updated: Jun 5

As seen in the NY Daily News on June 2, 2022

It’s a timeless set of problems in the New York City transit system. In 1990, when I became chief of the Transit Police, these problems were generally worse, but they fell into precisely the same categories that we face today: rising felony crime, including some shockingly high profile incidents; entrenched homeless and mentally ill individuals who tend to frighten riders; and accelerating fare evasion, running into the tens of millions of dollars in lost transit revenue.

When I say the problems were worse back then, I am not exaggerating: There were 22 murders in the system in 1990, as opposed to eight last year; 18,000 felony crimes, as opposed to about 1,800 in 2021; and 5,000 people trying to live in the system, of whom more than 100 died that year. The fare evasion losses weren’t as large as they are now, because, at $1.25, the fare was much lower, but the gross number of fare evaders was probably higher.

In 1990, these problems had been festering and worsening for years. They cried out for a strategic approach. Crime, disorder and fare evasion are all related to each other, and are, in turn, all related to a fourth problem, which is fear. Transit customers can come to see the system as dangerous, and many will avoid it, as they are doing today.

The efforts so far by the Adams administration, including surging more than 1,000 extra cops into the system and engaging the homeless population, have been commendable, but from an outside perspective, they don’t seem to constitute the kind of comprehensive strategic plan that is necessary. Back in 1990, I drew on the collective wisdom of experienced cops in the then-independent Transit Police. If that kind of institutional knowledge still exists in today’s NYPD’s Transit Bureau, we should be drawing on it.

In February, Mayor Adams laid out his Subway Safety Plan. It calls for many positive steps, but given that the tide of crime underground has not turned, it is time for a supplement.

The subway is an enclosed system, which provides a significant crime-fighting and disorder-control advantage. It begins at the turnstiles. Many argue that fare evasion is a petty crime that should not be enforced, and they don’t much care that it’s costing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority millions in lost revenue. But they should care that losing control of the entrances to the subway invites both disorder and crime.

Not all fare evaders are subway robbers and thieves, but experience tells us that subway robbers and thieves are overwhelmingly fare evaders, and chronic ones to boot. Caught at the turnstiles, they are disabled as criminal actors at least for a day and sometimes far longer, if they are found to have an illegal weapon or an outstanding warrant. Even if the local district attorneys refuse to prosecute fare evasion, police should be systematically and visibly summonsing fare evaders and arresting the chronic offenders. This is first leg of a comprehensive approach to controlling subway crime.

The subway is also a regulated, rules-governed environment, which provides a basis for the second leg of a subway strategy. Enforcing subway rules gives police many more opportunities to intervene with bad behavior than they have on the streets. Cops should be seen on trains, on platforms, and on mezzanines, intervening with rule-breakers by issuing summonses, making arrests when warranted, or simply ejecting unruly persons from the system.

One way we accomplished this in the early 1990s were through what we called train order maintenance stops at busy stations. The conductor would announce that a train was being held for police inspection, and officers would walk the length of the train, correcting any problems they encountered. Within minutes, the train was on its way. This kind of high visibility patrol, with officers taking enforcement actions, has a positive effect on disorder problems and a powerful impact on public perception. Passive police presence is mildly comforting to subway riders; active police patrol is positively encouraging.

The third leg of the stool is precisely targeting locations and chronic criminal actors. Faced with much higher rates of robbery and theft in 1990, we used a raft of such tactics, including police decoys and a substantial number of plainclothes officers, to get repeat robbers and thieves off the system. Today, in light of the criminal justice reform measures enacted in the intervening 30 years, these kinds of tactics will require more forceful and directed support from post-arrest parts of the criminal justice system to ensure that the offenders face meaningful consequences. I favor a system that would identify chronic subway offenders and ban them from using the system.

I learned about subway policing from the best. We turned the tide in the early 1990s when there were 47 felonies a day on the subway. We can surely do it now when there are fewer than seven.