New York’s subways are suffering from an old, familiar plague: broken windows. For the first half of the year, the Daily News reports, the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority has recorded 485 smashed windows, costing nearly $300,000, including 47 destroyed on just one July day. The MTA has also lost $1.2 million worth of digital-screen property to vandalism this year.
Old-time New Yorkers who rode the trains before their mid-1980s renaissance will remember spider-vein windows and doors as a ubiquitous part of commuting — along with something grimmer: the threat of violent crime. It’s no surprise, then, that a bloom of broken windows is coinciding with a surge in criminal attacks on people riding on or working in subways.
The pandemic’s first five weeks saw three murders in the subway system; now comes a fourth, the gruesome death of 57-year old Dwayne “Bilal” Brown, pushed to the subway tracks and killed by a train as he tried to break up a fight on a Harlem platform this month.
The last time New York’s subway system saw four murders in one year was in 2007 — and 2020 is barely half over. Moreover, 2007 was an aberration. Over the past 23 years, the subways have seen an average of just more than two people murdered each year.
The risk of being a crime victim on any given trip is low, well below 1 percent. But the statistical probability has skyrocketed. In June, an essential worker riding the trains faced six times the risk, relative to last June, of being robbed, and more than five times the risk of being assaulted.
One emergency-room nurse has been assaulted twice on her commute this year, the first time getting hit in the face by an assailant and the second time being repeatedly beaten with a cane.
Low ridership, and fewer eyes on platforms and trains, has emboldened criminals. In June, only 905,000 passengers rode the subways, compared with more than 5.6 million last year. Yet the number of robberies went down by only one, compared with last June, to 46, and the number of assaults by just three, to 19.
The surge in violence is particularly remarkable considering that since the first week in May, subways have been shuttered to riders from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., hardly the safest hours to ride even during normal times.
The system has seen a near-total absence of law enforcement. In June 2019, police officers wrote 7,075 summonses for infractions in the transit system, from walking between cars to taking up more than one seat. This June, the figure was 296, a 95.8 percent decline. Last June, police gave out 5,828 fare-evasion summonses. This June, the figure was 41, a 99.3 percent decline.
Last June, police arrested, rather than summonsed, 218 people for fare evasion — an action they take only when a fare-evasion suspect won’t cooperate or is arrested in conjunction with other charges, such as weapons possession. This June, the grand total of fare-evasion arrests was … one.
Advocates for de-policing the subways claim that there is no evidence that fare-evaders or windows-smashers go on to commit bigger crimes, but at least two of this year’s four murder suspects evaded the fare to gain entry to the system. In stopping fare evaders, police keep people from bringing hundreds of illegal knives and guns into the subway system.
Chronic fare evasion is antisocial behavior; it can also be indicative of mental illness or homelessness. The homeless and mentally ill denizens of the transit system need firm signals that they can’t use the subway as a loitering spot, where they often disrupt trains by walking onto tracks, setting fires or soiling cars.
Before the pandemic threw its finances into a crisis, the MTA was set to hire 500 new police officers to supplement the city-supervised NYPD officers who generally do this job. Now, with 140 new police personnel, the MTA has frozen any additional hiring. If Mayor Bill de Blasio and other elected officials won’t let the NYPD do its job, the MTA will have to do it, unfreezing its hiring to secure the system.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images