How should the subway be policed?
The New York City subway changed my life in two ways.
First, it freed me from the bonds of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where I grew up, as did my mother, her mother and her grandmother. In the 1970s and ’80s, my family used to sit on the stoop in the summer and watch the B train rumble by on the elevated tracks a block away. I would marvel at the colorful graffiti tags that went from one end of a subway car to the other. My mother explained that I was looking at a crime made possible because the city couldn’t secure its subway system.
When I was accepted to Stuyvesant High School in the spring of 1988, it was the city’s best public high school for math and science. It was the ticket to admission to a good college for countless working-class New Yorkers. But letting me attend required a leap of faith from my parents. The whole idea of a 14-year-old from Brooklyn attending a school in lower Manhattan was made possible by the subway, but they were worried the trips would be dangerous. They weren’t wrong. I was robbed once, had to fight off a gang with pepper spray another time, and watched a teenager get stabbed in the back by a homeless man he was bullying. When my friend Ray and I were changing trains at Queens Plaza after a first date with girls from Bayside, we were showered with urine from a man peeing down the stairs from the train platform above ours. My classmates from all over the city had similar stories, though most of the urine was underfoot rather than raining down from above.
A lot of things made the New York City subway more habitable during the intervening years, and policing was one of them.
Four years later, when I went off to Dartmouth in rural New Hampshire, it was partly to get away from commutes like that. The ’90s were a time when you chose your schools based on the safety of their campuses, and it was a relief not to have to worry about crime for once in my life. But when I was home my freshman summer, I was surrounded and robbed by three men on a subway platform in Brooklyn. This time, a police officer was upstairs, and when I told him what happened he arrested the men. I never forgot the palpable sense of relief. The police officer who came to my rescue that day, Thomas Higdon, inspired me to become a New York City police officer after graduation. That was the second way the subway changed my life: its crime and danger set the course of my career.
A lot of things made the New York City subway more habitable during the intervening years, and policing was one of them. But after decades of being able to take the subway at any time of the day or night, people are beginning to worry about their safety again. In 2022, serious crime is up 47 percent in the transit system as compared to 2021, driven by increases in robbery, assaults and felony theft. But these 1,500 crimes (to date) and some notable incidents of people being pushed in front of trains by the mentally ill aren’t the only reason commuters decide subways or city living aren’t for them. Homelessness, mental illness, drug use and the associated behavioral health problems make many subway trips an ordeal. They may be minor trials, but they add up. It’s left the city a little nonplussed: a call for more enforcement by the Mayor Adams and his supporters has been countered by a refusal to go back to the days when the city’s court dockets were filled with fare-beating cases and other minor violations that generated the arrest warrants, fines and jail sentences that could upend the lives of people in already vulnerable states.
At the center of this debate about policing the subway lies “broken windows,” the well-worn theory that enforcing even minor violations is important for two reasons. One is that, when left unchecked, small violations embolden bigger, more serious ones, since they create the sense that capable guardians aren’t present and people are free to break the law. The other is that serious criminals are also the type of people likely to jump the turnstile, blow off court or drink and smoke on the subway, so arresting people for minor violations will ensnare the ones with the intent to commit more serious crimes, or lead to the discovery of a gun in their waistband, or bring them to court on the warrant out for their arrest.
Even if the small offenses don’t lead to more serious ones, these small things still matter greatly. The subway is a unique place with its own fragilities.
While it’s true that broad sweeps for little things will turn up a certain number of weapons and warrants, the dragnet the police have to cast is quite wide, and evidence suggests it is far from equitable, consistently exacting a disproportionate toll on Black and Brown New Yorkers. As for the idea that small offenses, left unchecked, normalize crime and pave the way for bigger ones, the scientific jury is still out — though for many, it remains an article of faith. But there is another concern that arises simply from framing the questions as whether “broken windows” is an accurate criminological theory: it centers the discussion on serious crime. In doing so, it neglects the critical fact that in the subway, even if the small offenses don’t lead to more serious ones, these small things still matter greatly. The subway is a unique place with its own fragilities.
Drinking, urinating, partying or selling churros from an unlicensed cart may all be unlawful out on the street, but we can restrain our enforcement until these behaviors become acutely disruptive. For the most part, people can make the individual choices that sort these conflicts out, like ignoring panhandlers, avoiding vendors and checking their expectations for peace and quiet on weekend evenings. The sidewalks of Times Square are not the sidewalks of Fort Greene or Riverdale, and people intuitively understand that. There is a difference between men drinking beer on their apartment building’s steps after work and drinking on a street corner, harassing the women walking home through their gauntlet.
But everyone is trapped when they take the subway. That is why it is the only place I’ve ever arrested someone for aggressive panhandling. I first saw the man standing on a subway staircase in front of a woman struggling to get her son down the stairs in a stroller. At first, I honestly thought he was stopping her so he could help her. But then it became clear she was going to heft the stroller alone, but he wasn’t going to let her by until she gave him money. Not only did I charge this man, but I chased him three blocks after he saw me and ran. I was faster then. I wanted it to be completely clear that nobody extorts a mother with a stroller who’s trying to use the subway.
The examples of why these small things matter in and of themselves needn’t be this extreme. Even the most successful subway rides ask people to accept things they otherwise wouldn’t, if they had a choice. The environment of the subway amplifies the effects of uncooperative behavior. Riders are packed in, pressed together, dealing with everyone else’s sights, sounds and smells. And that’s when everyone is just standing or sitting there, dutifully giving their seats to older individuals, the infirm and pregnant women. Consistently adding a fragrant, intoxicated person sprawled across four seats, smoking a cigarette or harassing the women he is working up the courage to fondle convinces decent, open-minded people they’d be better off driving a car to work in the suburbs. Physically living on a train, with your earthly belongings, is disruptive at the most basic level, however tragic the underlying circumstances may be.
Riding the subway is the paradigmatic act of social cooperation in a city’s public space.
It seems we not only often misunderstand that the small transgressions matter on their own when we talk about the subway, but also that this concern isn’t about disorder, per se, but about noncooperation. We’ve let normative and cultural problems with the idea of “disorder” lead us away from why cooperation matters so much on the subway. The only legitimate use of the subway is conveyance; it is why the space was created, and its social contract stipulates people will crush themselves into this space day after day to unobtrusively get to where they need to go. Jews, Protestants and Muslims; Republicans and Democrats; Trumpers and supporters of justice and democracy; Black or white people; children and elders; rich and poor; new immigrants and Daughters of the American Revolution: they all agree to keep to themselves as their thighs touch in adjacent seats because they are being (hopefully) quickly sped underground to their multitude of destinations for less than three dollars a pop.
Riding the subway is the paradigmatic act of social cooperation in a city’s public space, and in the nation’s largest city more than anywhere else. When people go to parks or take a walk down a street, they encounter neighbors doing a lot of different things, from conveyance to commerce, recreation, protest and quiet contemplation. Some of it can be off-putting or genuinely disruptive to modest plans that are important to other people. Some things can be unfair, like running a small business on the sidewalk while working-class competitors in storefronts follow health and safety regulations, pay rent, get licenses and file taxes. So there is still a need for consideration and compromise on the street; people need to conform to fair norms and laws to make it all work, day after day.
This brings us back to the more serious offenses that formed my adolescent memories of life in New York City, and that led me to my career in policing. If giving up on brokering and enforcing the fair terms of cooperation on the subway is enough to drive people away from using it, it’s easy to see how the accompanying increases in serious crime on the subway bring about the same effect much faster. It also traumatizes people in ways that are harder to reverse and repair. Uncooperative behavior is an annoying daily grind that leads people to seek relief by leaving, while witnessing or being victimized by serious crime has truly enduring effects. Some victims will never feel safe in the subway again.
If we can figure out how to promote cooperation and reduce crime without the disruptions of arrest, everyone will be better off.
These are the problems New York City is facing at present. I am not suggesting we go back to a purely enforcement-driven response, because if we can figure out how to promote cooperation and reduce crime without the disruptions of arrest, everyone will be better off. In fact, all the research I do these days about drug use and addiction is to find ways for the government to effectively reduce crime and overdose using alternatives to arrest.
If you think it sounds like I doth protest too much, you are right. I am not precisely sure what we should do about these conditions in the transit system that doesn’t have a substantial policing component. It’s worth noting that the NYPD recently had to publish orders instructing officers who police the subway to stop congregating together in big groups and socializing. So having the police simply start paying attention again, and acting to broker and enforce norms, would be helpful. But when officers remove people from the subway whose behavior is driven by homelessness and addiction, it’s no more than kicking the can down the road if linkage to shelter, treatment and other social services aren’t waiting for them on the surface. People should be cited for urinating or drinking in the subway, but a system that doesn’t address the drivers of much of the behavior isn’t truly taking the problem seriously.
Back in 1988, there was a friend of mine in junior high school who got better grades and worked harder than me. Let’s call him Peter. He could have gone to any high school in the city that admitted students based on merit. But his parents wouldn’t let him take the subway to school: they loved him too much, he was a thinker more than a fighter, and they worried he would make an easy target. They were afraid of letting their son take the subway into Manhattan every day, so he went to the local high school. Peter did well there, but wasn’t able to take advantage of one of the best public high schools in the country, a place that convinced its students they were truly capable of anything.
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how Peter’s life shrank a little when his parents made that fateful decision out of love and fear. The New York City subway changed the course of his life, too. If you asked my long-gone Jewish grandmother, the effects of crime and a lack of cooperation on the New York City subway are why I never became a doctor. It’s sweet of her to think so, as a proud grandma, she thought I could accomplish anything. But she wasn’t entirely wrong.
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