The Failure of Subway Policing
Eric Adams’s cop-centric approach isn’t likely to make New Yorkers safer
New York Mayor Eric Adams, joined by Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell (right), announces a plan to address homelessness and crime in the subway system, January 6th, 2022.
On Tuesday morning, a gunman on a Manhattan-bound N train passing through the diverse Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park opened fire in the crowded cabin, injuring ten passengers with bullets and another 13 with smoke grenades. Miraculously, none of the injuries were fatal. Despite the heavy police presence that New York Mayor Eric Adams deployed into the subway system earlier this year, the suspect, a 62-year-old man named Frank James, was able to flee the scene and remain at large for more than 24 hours before being identified by a 21-year-old Syrian immigrant working at an East Village bodega, who apparently—according to one of a few conflicting accounts—helped the cops find and arrest the shooter.
While singular in its horror, this week’s mass shooting comes in the context of a perceived crime wave in New York that helped propel Adams, a former beat cop, into office—and even as it revealed the inadequacy of Adams’s policing-driven public safety strategy, it is likely to result in even more cops on the subway, even larger NYPD budgets, and an even harsher police crackdown on unhoused New Yorkers. For this week’s newsletter (subscribe here), I spoke with Nick Pinto, a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about police, courts, and prisons for outlets including The Intercept, Gothamist, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, to try to get a clearer understanding of the limitations of Adams’s policy approach. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
David Klion: What did transit policing in New York look like under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, before Eric Adams took office in January?
Nick Pinto: You’re right to frame the question as predating Adams, because the debate over subway policing tactics is a much older story. Even before the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings, there was a whole series of rolling radical protests that were specifically about policing in the subways. Those protests were responding to a series of initiatives by de Blasio to come down ever harder on fare evasion, which is a crime of poverty in which people who can’t afford subway fare hop the turnstile. It ties into a larger theory of broken windows policing—the idea is that by tolerating some amount of fare evasion and other low-level offenses, the subway was sliding into disorder, and the way to prevent more serious offenses was to crush fare evasion with overwhelming police force. So that was the policy for most of de Blasio’s administration, and that is the response across administrations when there’s a sense that the subways are disorderly or unsafe. It’s hard to prevent one-off, unpredictable, spectacular acts of violence; what police are much better at, and what they’re trained to do, is to tackle the kid who hops the turnstile, or to arrest the homeless guy who’s looking for a warm place to sleep, or to harass the woman selling churros. And there’s this backwards-justifying theory that in doing the thing that they’re good at, they’re actually having some effect on the thing that they’re not particularly good at, which is ensuring public safety.
In absolute numbers, crime in the subway went way down starting in early 2020, which continues to this day, because ridership went down thanks to the pandemic; on the other hand, the number of incidents per capita went up. Beyond the actual phenomenon of crime in the subway, there’s a meta-phenomenon of public awareness of crime, and that’s what politicians are really responsive to. What makes the public perception so complicated is that in between the phenomenon and the meta-phenomenon, there’s this mediating force, which is the press—which is extremely attached to promulgating a narrative of a city spiraling into chaos and violence and disorder. Every time there is a violent incident or the trendline spikes upwards, the media is making enormous amounts of hay over telling people that they’re not safe on the subway.
DK: Which brings us to Adams’s campaign for mayor last year. How did the electorate respond to Adams’ image as a former cop running to restore law and order?
NP: The primary field for the mayoral race had candidates who were making two different bets about where popular sentiment was on policing. A lot of them were betting that as a result of Black Lives Matter, the reassessment of stop-and-frisk, and the 2020 uprisings after George Floyd’s murder, that there was a real appetite for a reformist approach to criminal justice and policing. Adams made the opposite bet, and it turned out that he was right. He ran a complicated campaign; it’s not like he was a Frank Rizzo-esque “lock-em-up” figure. In addition to being a cop he was also a former victim of racist policing. That’s part of his story too. And in his time in the NYPD, he was extremely concerned with reforming the police—although he was mostly interested in reforming the way the police treat Black and brown people who are police officers, not Black and brown citizens in general. Nevertheless, he wasn’t a cop’s cop, he was more of a dissident cop. That allowed him to say, “I know what I’m talking about, I’ve walked that beat, and I’ve also been inside the police department, so I know what’s wrong with it and what needs to be fixed. But I also know how to keep you safe.”
That turned out to be a winning message. I think a lot of people are still trying to understand how the massive mobilization of the summer of 2020 did not really turn into a lasting political movement, or even an inclination when people entered the voting booth.
DK: And it’s worth acknowledging that Adams won big in heavily Black neighborhoods in particular. What he was saying resonated with a lot of Black voters.
NP: That’s absolutely true. So then he comes into office and starts following through on this mandate. He has to be very aware that his mayoralty will live or die on his ability to deliver on this promise to produce a sense of public safety. The problem for him is twofold: First, all of the media machinery has not stopped turning its gears; the tabloids are still picking up every single incident on the subway and elsewhere that could make people feel like we’re descending into Fear City. Second, the tools that he has pledged to use aren’t particularly effective at producing results. Crime rates are incredibly multifactorial in their causation—they have to do with economics and material security, with pandemics, with culture, with environment and neighborhood and recreational opportunities. It gets extremely granular, to the point where there is no accepted universal theory of what causes crime and what prevents it. There’s a certain amount of academic debate about how much impact increased police activity has on long-term crime numbers, and the consensus is that it might have a little bit of effect at the margin, but it’s not the universal tool it’s often made out to be. So here’s Adams, who won office being the guy who’s going to make New Yorkers feel safe again, but the media is still saying it’s not safe, and the primary tool he’s working with is a tool that doesn’t really do the job.
DK: Focusing specifically on transit, what policies had Adams been implementing prior to this week’s shooting incident?
NP: Less than a week into his term, on January 6th, Adams announced he was going to increase police patrols in the subway. Then, after a woman was pushed onto the subway tracks and killed on January 15th, Adams said he was going to be putting 1,000 extra cops in subway stations, bringing the total number to 3,500. The New York Times had a good deep dive on the man behind that attack, who suffered from profound schizophrenia that had gone untreated over his lifetime; he cycled through short-term hospitalizations, getting arrested and being back out on the street on and off, not getting the help that he needed. And then this guy pushed a woman he didn’t know off the subway platform and to her death.
The New York Post loves a story like that. And it’s not a fake story, they’re not making it up—bad things were happening. But this created even more pressure for Adams to do something, and he felt he had to respond to it by sending teams of police into the subway specifically to target homeless people. The idea was that they were an element of disorder that was contributing to people’s sense of a lack of safety on the subway. Because he’s a smart politician, he promised that they were going to be specifically targeting violent crime, and they weren’t going to be doing the nickel-and-dime stuff that has given transit police a bad public rap. But because police are not particularly good at preventing violent crime, there continue to be incidents of violence in the subway, and some of them have been pretty terrible. Meanwhile we’ve had a lot of coverage of cops just throwing people off of trains during one of the coldest months of the year, without a clear sense of where they were supposed to go.
DK: What does the most recent such incident, Tuesday’s mass shooting, reveal about the efficacy or lack thereof of Adams’s police strategy in the subway to date? And what is likely to be the response now?
NP: What the incident shows yet again is that even a massive force of 3,500 cops across the subway system is not particularly good at preventing crime. That’s not to say that cops are lazy and stupid and just playing Candy Crush on their phones all day. Even with diligent police, it’s not easy to prevent something like this ahead of time. So the problem isn’t so much with the diligence of the police as with our expectations of what policing is capable of—like how can you stop a guy in the firearm-saturated United States from driving in from out of state, walking onto a subway platform, and shooting people?
From a policy perspective, what’s more interesting than the incident itself, horrible as it was, was the way it was metabolized in the media and then in the political sphere. What you saw immediately, before the dust had settled and the facts were known, was wall-to-wall media coverage and a rush to contextualize this random act of violence within the larger pre-existing narrative of chaos and disorder in New York City. On Twitter, there’s a bot that tracks headline changes at The New York Times, and it flagged that the Times at least briefly experimented with a headline that subsumed the incident into the narrative. There was something metaphorically appropriate about the fact that Adams, the avatar of policing, was sidelined and out of play for all of this, because he was sequestered in Gracie Mansion with Covid. He was trying to stay in the game and show some leadership, so he was doing all kinds of press for this. Reporters were asking him why this happened when he promised he’d make us safer, so he said we’re going to double the number of police in the subway—to double down on the strategy that hasn’t been working.
There’s something reminiscent of the response to 9/11. When you’re dealing with perceptions of insecurity, the state’s incentive isn’t quite to produce security, especially from these spectacular one-off random acts that are very hard to prevent. It’s much easier to produce theatrical displays of the security apparatus, whether that’s creating enormous lines at the TSA and making everyone take off their shoes, or whether it’s mandating that 50% of the people on the subway at all times are police officers. Someone asked Adams whether he was going to put metal detectors in the subway. But Adams was not in a position to say that that would be an absurdity, so instead he said we’ll think about that. His press guy had to get on Twitter afterwards and claim that he wasn’t talking about traditional metal detectors, but about some innovative new fantasy technology. We’re just spinning out into this imaginary world of total control and safety, which doesn’t produce actual safety, but does have real consequences for people who are living under it.
DK: It’s interesting that what could have maybe prevented this shooting, and what in the end led to the shooter getting arrested, seems so unrelated to this giant show of police force. If the state invested properly in the MTA, there might have been functioning cameras in the right places when the shooting happened. And it was an engaged citizen working at a bodega, a classic example of eyes on the street, that facilitated actually catching the guy.
NP: Yesterday, the police gave a press conference where they tried to take credit and do a bit of a victory lap for the apprehension of the shooter. To be fair, it was the police who took him into custody and who identified him in the first place. But it didn’t exactly take Sherlock Holmes-level detective work to identify a guy who left the gun that was bought in his name, as well as the keys to the nearby truck that was rented in his name, at the scene of the crime. The NYPD press conference unfolded at the same time as a spontaneous burst of media attention on this bodega guy, Zack Tahhan, who evidently saw the shooter and called it in. And so there were these competing narratives about who saved the day: On the one hand, a community member—an Arab American, which is significant given how the NYPD treated Arabs and Muslims after 9/11—who is cheerful, ebullient, open-hearted, and community-minded. And on the other hand there’s this very serious police press conference. These are really the two models that are competing on public safety. And are we looking out for each other and keeping each other safe, or are we helpless before the terror but for the boys in blue? A lot is at stake in that debate, and I think we’re going to see both sides doing a lot of spin and interpretive work about what these two competing narratives mean and how we go forward.