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New York Subway Police Make Us Less Safe

Recent violent arrests in the city subways should make New Yorkers question the push by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the MTA to hire 500 new transit police.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Friday night, activists held a protest in Brooklyn to condemn recent police violence in New York subways after two widely shared videos rightfully sparked public outrage.

In the first video, shot from inside a train pulling into the Franklin Avenue station in Brooklyn on Oct. 25, riders flee as several police officers appear to point guns at a Black teenager seated inside; the teen had allegedly jumped a turnstile. An eyewitness told Gothamist that the 19-year-old was “clearly cooperating and scared,” and the video shows him raising his hands in surrender. But four NYPD officers rush into the train and force him to the ground while other officers attempt to prevent bystanders from filming the arrest.

The department claimed that police were responding to “an alert for a male with a gun” but found no firearm in his possession. 

About a day later, a video of a second violent incident appeared online. After apprehending teenagers who were allegedly involved in a fight before the video began, a group of officers brings a few of the teenagers to the ground at the Jay Street-MetroTech stop in Brooklyn. Another officer walks up to a Black teenager—who did not appear to be involved in the initial scuffle—and throws a punch at his head. When that teen pushes back, what appears to be six cops tackle him to the ground and press his face into the subway station floor. 

The violent incidents follow Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement in June that the state and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs the subway, would deploy 500 NYPD and MTA police officers in the transit system, citing an increase in assaults on transportation workers and increased revenue loss from fare evasion. In September, the MTA announced that it would hire an additional 500 transit police and 81 police supervisors to patrol the subways and buses. The new hires will nearly double the current transit police force. 

Although it’s true that the MTA desperately needs funds, hiring more transit police is the worst possible solution to that problem: It perpetuates over-policing in communities of color and dumps more money into law enforcement, instead of directing it into communities that need it most.

As The Appeal has previously reported, New York City fare evasion enforcement disproportionately targets people of color. According to 2019 NYPD data, 80 percent of fare evasion summons were issued to people of color, and 89 percent of those arrested for fare evasion were people of color. Only 3 percent of white people stopped for fare evasion were ultimately arrested. Even as the absolute number of tickets and arrests has decreased, the racial disparities have persisted. 

Flooding city transit with police will only exacerbate the disproportionate harms caused by over-policing. Five teenagers were arrested in connection with the Jay Street-MetroTech incident, including Benjamin Marshall, 15, who was punched by an officer during the incident. Though his parents said he wasn’t involved in the fight, Benjamin was charged with assaulting a police officer. On Wednesday, Benjamin’s parents announced plans to file a lawsuit against the officer and the police department, alleging that the police lied to them about the teen initiating a fight with officers and that officers’ use of force was unjustified. “I’m just outraged to see a cop punching my son in his face. Multiple times,” his father told the New York Daily News. 

It’s particularly alarming that more police are being hired without improved accountability mechanisms to prevent police misconduct. The officer who punched Benjamin in that video will be placed on “non-enforcement assignment” but not removed from duty, according to Gothamist. The officer has received multiple complaints filed through the Civilian Complaint Review Board, but his name is being withheld under 50-a, a statute that prevents public release of disciplinary information

The legislature is considering a bill that would repeal 50-a, though both Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD oppose full repeal. De Blasio, appearing Monday on “Inside City Hall,” said that people “feel comforted” by seeing police officers in the subway. “If we can have more,” he said, “that’s a very good thing.”

Increasing fare evasion enforcement to make up for MTA revenue loss also makes no fiscal sense—and will only add to an already bloated law enforcement budget. The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit that studies New York City finances, estimates that the cost of the 581 hires will start at $56 million a year and increase to about $120 million in the next 10 years. Some of the money for the new transit police may come from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr.’s asset forfeiture fund. But Vance’s contributions—he has pledged up to $40 million—will only cover a fraction of the cost. Though the MTA estimates that it lost $215 million last year from fare evasion, that questionable estimate still pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars that will be spent on policing and incarcerating New York City public transit users.

Several state and city politicians echoed this concern while speaking out against police violence, calling on the city to cancel plans to hire transit police and reinvest the associated funds in transit access and community programs. 

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams told The Appeal in an interview that part of the $5.6 billion NYPD budget could be used for community investments. “If we have the money for these police officers, we better have the money for those other things,” he said. “If we don’t have it, then perhaps we need to take it from places like that $5 billion.”

Williams is correct: Instead of ticketing, arresting, and assaulting Black and Latinx subway users, New York City should be divesting from the police and reallocating funds to ensure that transit is accessible and affordable for all. In total, the MTA takes in about $6 billion each year from fares, a sum that’s only slightly higher than the annual police department budget. It’s easy to see how police divestment could help solve the MTA’s budget problems. The city’s poorly implemented Fair Fares program has a budget of just $106 million for its first year, which will soon be dwarfed by the MTA’s annual expenditure for 581 new law enforcement hires.

New York is one of the wealthiest American cities. We can afford to fund transit, but instead, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars to criminalize poverty and increase our gargantuan police force. New York must divest from policing and stop using police to brutalize people who can’t afford the fare.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem writes about politics and culture, focusing on policing, austerity, and the criminalization of poverty.