NYC Subway Crime: What’s the Perception, What’s Real and How to Fix It


New York’s subway system is one of the largest, oldest and most complicated in the world with 472 stations and 665 miles of track. But crime and fear have become a real problem for the system.

Passengers driven out by the pandemic are coming back into the system, but perhaps more slowly because of headlines about stabbings, robberies and people being pushed past trains by strangers.

Understanding transit crime is different from street crime. It’s not a single neighborhood that you can flood with cops, or a particular circle of criminals that can be targeted and arrested. New York City’s transit system defies typical community policing tactics because it is not one community, but the sprawling, constantly moving system that connects all of New York’s communities.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently pushed back against fears that subways have become more dangerous, saying the problem is more of a « perception » problem than a statistical increase in crime.

Has crime increased significantly this year in the transit system?

Yes, it’s true, if you compare the numbers to last year, crime in the transit system has increased by more than 40%. What drives the numbers is theft, which usually means someone’s phone or wallet has been stolen from their bag or from a seat, sometimes it’s when people doze off. So non-violent crime is up more than violent crime, but it’s the violent crime we see in the news that shocks the senses of many bikers.

So what about violent crimes?

What the police see are small numbers, but they have a significant impact on the system and the psyche of its passengers. There have been three murders so far this month; too much in too little time not to ask a serious question about security. Those three murders make it nine so far for 2022. During the same period last year, the number of murders was six. Robbery is also up about 34%, Felony Assault is up about 17%. If you compare those of last year when there were still a million less runners.

Looks like crime is out of control then, doesn’t it?

So that’s where it gets tricky, but it’s worth figuring out. It seems crime is increasing dramatically unless you zoom out. If you take the « seven majors » which are the standard for measuring felony, murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, robbery, what you see is that all of these crimes were slightly higher in 2019 before the pandemic. Right now, crime is actually lower than it was in 2018 or 2019 by 4%.

What other factors do you need to consider to understand this?

Traffic. Think of the transit system as its own city. In 2019, New York City subways reportedly had a population of approximately 5.5 million people (riders). If a “place” with a larger population than Los Angeles only had six serious crimes a day, that would be fantastic. Having 10 or 12 murders for the year would make it by far the safest big city in the country. But back to transit. We have less crime than before the pandemic, but we also have fewer users. But even with attendance averaging 3.8 million in recent weeks, the odds of being a victim of crime remain very low, around one in 600,000.

So why are so many runners afraid?

A few reasons. First, if they read the tabloids, they should be. Examples of October headlines include: « Transit Crime Spike, » « Governor’s Race Spotlight Finds Transit Safety Issue, » « Terrified New Yorkers Turn to Vespas and Citi bikes,” “As the horrors of the subway continue, Adams must push Hochul to act. and then, of course, there are the crime du jour stories. But understanding passenger fear goes beyond violent crime, which gets more attention because it happens on the subway. These stories are of course in people’s consciousness, but then they get on the subway and over the course of a day or a week they see the homeless man lying on the bench, they see the mentally ill person screaming or acting , children smoking weed, they see the man urinating on the corner of the platform of the worst, in the train. All of this, even though it is not a violent crime, gives bikers a sense of disorder and fear. They just feel like things don’t seem to be quite under control there and even though they’ve never been the victim of a serious crime in the system, seeing all of this makes them angry.

So where’s the app?

Interesting question. The NYPD makes literally thousands of arrests in the transit system every year and issues thousands more summonses. This year so far, police have made 6,793 arrests in the transit system. Last year this time there were 4,622. Arrests are up 47%, but that’s for felonies. When you look at the other violations – the “quality of life” conditions – the ones that make people feel unsafe in the system, those summons have increased by more than 200%. It would be hard to argue that, generally speaking, the police are not involved in law enforcement.

If arrests and summonses have increased so much over the past two years, why has crime increased over the same two years?

Even before bail reform and criminal justice reform laws changed how cops could enforce laws on the subway, district attorneys stopped prosecuting many of these violations and crimes. . Tourniquet jumping is perhaps the most significant of these crimes. Transit cops have an old adage, « He who controls the door, controls the system. » What they mean is that most people causing serious trouble in the system do not pay to enter. Ticketing and, in some cases, arresting people for jumping the turnstile was a key part of reducing overall crime in the system. This was the third time someone was caught jumping the turnstile, instead of just one more ticket they could be arrested. District attorneys do not write these charges. Smoking weed on trains or on platforms (or even cigarettes) is still an offence. Public urination and other things are just a ticket now and offenders often throw them away. Even for criminal offenses, prosecutors are reluctant to charge them and judges are reluctant to do anything but dismiss them. Many criminals and offenders have come in quite confident that there will be little to no consequences beyond a moment of inconvenience.

So if the cops are running in circles, why do they care?

Frankly, they wonder that a lot but their boss, Jason Wilcox, and their superiors push them to commit. They encourage officers to write the summons, even if the outcome is uncertain. Only by engaging after a violation can an officer obtain their ID and find out if the person you are talking to has a warrant for a serious violent crime in the system or on the street. Sometimes just hiring someone who commits an offense gets them arrested. An arrest is when an officer may discover they are carrying a knife or a gun. Sometimes it just tells the person that the cops will engage where they see a violation. Both the precinct public and the offender need to see daily that the cops are still in the game there, even though the laws are weaker and the district attorneys refuse to charge. Otherwise, the perception is that the police give up.

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