Within hours of Tuesday’s shooting on the New York City subway, in which 10 people were struck and 13 more were otherwise wounded — none, miraculously with life-threatening injuries — the attack had been folded into a broader narrative about rising crimes rates, both in New York City and around the country. “I’m committing all the resources of our state to fight this surge of crime, this insanity that is seizing our city, because we want to get back to normal,” Gov. Kathy Hochul declared at a news conference.
Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer, likewise announced that he would effectively double the number of officers in subway stations. Officers patrolling the subway on the daytime shift, who work from around 7:05 a.m. to 3:40 p.m., will, Adams said, remain on duty into the evening, as well.
The goal of placing more cops in the subway system is to make people -feel- safer.
As many have pointed out, for over a year now, the city had already been ramping up the number of officers in the transit system. “Omnipresence is the key,” Adams said at a joint news conference with Hochul in January. “People feel the system is not safe because they don’t see officers. We’re going to bring a visual presence to our systems.”
It’s the same sentiment that Sarah Feinberg, then the interim president of NYC Transit, expressed at a forum with the Citizens Budget Commission in March 2021. “I would like to see a uniformed presence in every station and, frankly, on every platform,” Feinberg said, the New York Daily News reported. “We’re at a critical moment where people have to come back into the system and they have to feel like they’re safe.”
And therein lies the crux of the issue: The goal of placing more cops in the subway system is to make people feel safer. It’s debatable whether they are any safer from the policies that officials have advocated.
For starters, the increase in police presence did nothing to prevent the death of Michelle Go, an Asian American woman who was shoved onto the tracks in January. Go was killed at the Times Square station, which as one of the busiest hubs for the subway system has had a heavy police presence for years. As many as 60 officers were assigned to the station in 2016 during another round of concern about subway safety.
What the extra police officers that Adams have deployed have done is focus on the appearance of crime, clearing homeless people off trains, apprehending turnstile hoppers and harassing unlicensed vendors who want to sell riders a churro.
Meanwhile, it’s true that New York has seen an increase in reported crimes year over year, according to NYPD statistics. But some context is required when you look at the most recent data, from the week of April 4–10. First, the vast majority of the increase in the year to date versus 2021 is in claims of crimes against property, like grand larceny and burglary, not violent crimes against people. But instead of looking at why more people feel that taking other people’s stuff is the best moneymaking option available, the response is almost always “more cops.”
What the extra police officers that Adams have deployed have done is focus on the appearance of crime.
Second, focusing on “transit crimes,” in particular, the data shows that there has been an initially eye-popping 68 percent increase in complaints to date in 2022 compared to last year. Looking a little more closely, the NYPD tracks all reports of felonies and misdemeanors on the subway and bus system as “transit crimes.” The majority of the 3,918 reports of transit incidents on the subway in 2021 alleged third-degree assault and second-degree harassment.
And while 367 complaints so far this year definitely seems like a lot — not necessarily for a system that services roughly 3 million subway riders per weekday. And even though we’re still far below the total ridership numbers pre-pandemic, the number of complaints this year is also down compared to a similar period in 2020.
Third, any talk that a crime wave in New York City is making residents feel unsafe should take into account the historic lows that we’re still seeing compared to 20 to 30 years ago. So far in 2022, the total number of major felony reports in New York City is up 44 by percent compared to the same period in 2021. That isn’t ideal by any measure — but the total number of major felony reports in the city in 2021 was 36.6 percent lower than in 2001 and 80.5 percent lower than in 1990. If this year’s trends hold, we’re set to see 2022 end with the same incident report rate as in 2003, which wasn’t exactly considered a hellacious time to live in the city.
But you know what’s also up year over year? The NYPD’s budget. The city set the NYPD’s total expenditures for fiscal year 2022 at $10.4 billion, a 4.7 percent increase. That is more than Mexico or Indonesia, for example, spend on their entire militaries in a year. The amount of overtime pay that will be required to fulfill Adams’ pledge will only add to that price tag, seeing as how overtime last year ran $206 million over budget.
Let me be clear: I feel nothing but sympathy for the people wounded in Tuesday’s shooting and for their fellow straphangers who have been traumatized by this experience. But a surge of police hiring or funding wouldn’t have prevented the litany of reported errors that hindered the initial response.
Billions of dollars in funding — and one of the first officers on the scene reportedly had a broken radio and asked civilians to dial 911. More than 3,500 police on duty in our subway system already — and yet the security cameras in the neighborhood Sunset Park station weren’t properly recording during the incident.
A surge of police hiring or funding wouldn’t have prevented the litany of reported errors that hindered the initial response.
And an increase in money for the NYPD wouldn’t have helped Frank James, the suspect arrested Wednesday. James’ online presence reportedly documented multiple instances of unhinged hate and racism alongside videos seemingly about the difficulties he had trying to receive New York City social services. The manhunt ended, it’s worth noting, not through police work, but because a bodega worker spotted James in the East Village — and because James himself called into a tip line.
I understand that politicians here seem to be in a bind. Fear is one of the most basic feelings humans have. You don’t have to have been the victim of a crime, or even know one, to believe crime is up and feel less safe. That feeling becomes pressure to do something to make those bad vibes go away.
It makes sense that in response, officials turn to one of the few tools that can be easily seen and interacted with, promising to increase police budgets and personnel. And as Democrats around the country look to New York City for cues on how to neutralize Republican attacks that they’re “weak on crime,” we’re sure to see the Brooklyn shooting as one more reason to distance themselves from the “defund the police” narrative.
The Brooklyn shooting is a terrifying incident that could have been a true tragedy. It’s good that the suspect has been apprehended. But the most likely outcome is that, yet again, America’s cities will be basing their anti-crime policy on what’s easiest for their leaders, not what’s best for their residents.