In Wake of Subway Stabbing, Concerns About Crime on Public Transit

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In a blast from the not-so-fondly-remembered past, violent gang activity spilled out of Central Park into Manhattan stations last week, with one of the teens involved in the altercation getting stabbed.

According to the New York Post, the trouble began when one gang confronted another in Central Park. One group fled, heading down into the subway station at West 72nd Street and Central Park West and jumping the turnstiles. There, four teens surrounded a 21-year-old Brooklyn man who was accused of being involved with another teen’s girlfriend; he was punched in the head and stabbed in the back, police said.

The attackers—one of them a 15-year-old girl—ran out of the station and were arrested, with the three older teens getting slapped with gang assault charges.

Last year, subway agents used the emergency broadcast system inside kiosk booths approximately 500,000 times to summon police. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

While injuries from that incident were confined to the two groups who were fighting, straphangers who witnessed an earlier incident weren’t as lucky. The Post reported that another gang that had been in the park was accused of robbing and assaulting two passengers, and two other afternoon subway attacks were the handiwork of teens who had been hanging out in the park.

Of course, serious incidents like these are a rarity when it comes to trouble on our transit system. Every day, millions ride New York City’s subways and buses without any problem. But smaller crimes are more common, like the pickpocket who targeted two women on the M11 bus earlier this month. The young man was so charming that one of the women jokingly offered to let him sit in her lap. He didn’t do that, but he did allegedly reach into her bag to snatch her wallet.

“We were so shocked because we liked the guy so much,” said one of the women, who asked to remain anonymous.

They weren’t the thief’s only victims, either. In the last few weeks, two other older women were pick-pocketed as they boarded the M11 bus, which runs on Amsterdam and Columbus avenues.

And then there is the recent data showing that violent is on the rise in New York City. Homicides are up almost 22 percent this year, compared with the same period last year. On Easter Sunday, an unruly crowd rampaged through Times Square on a spree that left three people dead. Mayor Bloomberg described the event, which resulted in 33 arrests, as a “wilding.”

With 70 subway kiosk booths slated to close, and 3,150 fewer police officers on the ground due to state budget cuts, some New Yorkers wonder if there will be a return to the “bad old days” of subway crime in the early 1990s.

“The police department is extraordinarily stressed because of the massive reductions,” said John Jay College of Criminal Justice lecturer Eugene O’Donnell. “The table is set for problems.”

O’Donnell subscribes to the “broken windows” theory of crime, which suggests that a society that appears to be lawless will itself breed lawlessness. In the 1980s, police began prosecuting minor offenses such as turnstile jumping, often catching criminals with outstanding warrants in the process. The physical infrastructure of the transit system underwent an overhaul, and graffiti-ridden subway cars were removed from service. Crime dropped dramatically and ridership soared. Now, some are wondering if these gains will be reversed.

“There is a palpable feeling of neglect now,” said O’Donnell, who is also a former police officer and prosecutor at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.

Whether recent transit budget cuts will impact on the subways remains to be seen. The most recent report released by the details felony crimes perpetrated in the subway over a 12-year period. In the months of January and February, robberies declined steadily from 404 in 1997 to 123 in 2009. Assaults were cut in half, and overall major felonies fell from 965 to 370 during the 12-year period.

According to a press representative for the New York City Police Department, transit crime currently averages 5.6 crimes per day—in a system that transports more than 10 million people on an average workday. By contrast, there were 11 crimes per day in 2001 and 50 crimes per day in 1990. Police officials dismiss reports of increased subway crime as bogus.

“One week’s data comparison have too small a data base,” wrote a member of the Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information in an email. “It’s cherry picking, and produces wildly distorted results.”

Nonetheless, subway crime seems to inspire fears that have nothing to do with statistical tables and crime reports. The reasons for this may be partly psychological. Many subway stations are underground. There is usually only one or two immediate means of egress. Stations are dirty and rat-infested. And it’s common to cross paths with panhandlers and mentally ill passengers who travel through—or live on—the subway, which can be disconcerting for some passengers.

Statistics reveal that New Yorkers are safer in the subways than above ground, where 99 percent of crimes occur. Yet this is cold comfort to straphangers such as the 31-year-old man who was mugged by two men—one of whom flashed a silver revolver—on the No. 6 train this month, and a Westchester woman who discovered her wallet was missing at the entrance to the East 86th Street train station. The thief treated himself to a $500 spending spree at Best Buy.

Others remain optimistic about subway safety. Ernestine Trapp, a home health aid who travels from Far Rockaway to her job on Central Park West each day, does not think the MTA staff reduction will affect how she feels about the subway.

“Sometimes I don’t get in until 10 at night, but I feel safe,” she said.

“I’ve never felt unsafe in the city,” said Columbia Law School student Andrew Cascini, as he rode the C train from his home in Harlem. “I know there was a a few weeks ago, and while that was certainly tragic, I don’t think that all crimes are inherently preventable.”

But Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, a rider’s advocacy group, is concerned that recent gains against transit crime might not hold up against budget cuts. Police presence in the subway system, he explained, was stepped up after the 1986 stabbing of Bryan Watkins by a group of young men, who approached his vacationing family to demand money. Afterward, cops began to conduct sweeps that targeted turnstile jumpers, which allowed them to catch criminals before they could enter the subway system. In 1990, Russianoff said, 19,000 felonies were recorded in the subway; by 1997, that number had gone down to about 3,500. And by 2009, felonies had shrunk to just more than 2,000.

But last year, he noted, subway agents used the emergency broadcast system located inside kiosk booths approximately 500,000 times to summon police. With the closing of many subway kiosks, there will be fewer agents to alert authorities when emergencies do occur.

And if NYPD budgets cuts go through, there will be fewer officers on the ground to rush to the rescue.

Former transit Police Chief Vincent Del Castillo, now an associate professor at John Jay College, would not speculate about whether the citywide spike in violent crime, MTA service cuts and possible reduction in police patrols would lead to a surge in crime below ground. But he does think the economic downturn is likely to impact safety.

“There is a general trend for crime to increase during poor economic times,” he said.

For O’Donnell, the John Jay lecturer, the service cuts and physical deterioration of subway stations is an uncomfortable reminder of the way things used to be. This may, he suggests, lead to a transit system that is less safe.

“We never want to get back,” O’Donnell said, “to the Russian roulette where we say, ‘Maybe we’ll have safety and maybe we won’t.’”

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