MTA Board Members Reconsider New Subway Cops: ‘What Is The Strategy Here?’
“I’m very concerned with what I’m seeing on social media, and I think we’re at a point now where we need to start demanding other options,” MTA board member Veronica Vanterpool told Gothamist on Tuesday. “How do we know that we need 500 cops right now? What’s the analysis that shows we need 500 as opposed to 250?”
Concerns over the added police presence in the transit system reached a fever pitch this weekend, after two churro sellers were handcuffed by NYPD officers on Brooklyn subway platforms. In recent weeks, officers have been seen pointing their guns inside a crowded subway car, punching teenagers in the face, and holding up an L train to remove a man seen dozing off on a bench. Recurring images of groups of officers guarding turnstiles have also generated significant concern about the MTA’s use of resources.
“I see these things on Twitter and it’s like, okay, what is the strategy here?” wondered Vanterpool. “It seems like a very hasty decision, and my frustration is that we have not had some of these larger conversations. It’s not too late to do that.”
Other MTA board members, such as David Jones and Bob Linn, have also expressed reservations about the new police officers, citing the racial discrepancies in enforcement and the high cost of law enforcement personnel.
“You have to understand there’s history here that puts the whole system under pressure, when particularly there’s an enforcement largely on people of color. You have to recognize the historical precedence,” Jones told fellow board member Sarah Feinberg, an outspoken proponent of the new cops, during an NYC Transit Committee meeting on Tuesday.
The MTA, which is currently facing a $1 billion budget deficit, has not yet said how much they’ll spend on new officers or how they plan to pay for it. The Citizens Budget Commission told Gothamist/WNYC that the estimated price tag is roughly $663 million over the next decade.
On Tuesday, MTA Chief Pat Foye said the figure would be included in a draft of the operating budget, passed out ahead of Thursday’s board meeting. Next month, the MTA’s board will have the opportunity to vote on that operating budget.
Governor Andrew Cuomo—who appoints a plurality of MTA board members, but does not technically have the power to unilaterally dictate staffing decisions—announced the hiring plans in September.
While the new MTA officers are expected to be brought on early next year, the number of police officers patrolling the subway has already increased significantly. This past summer, the governor announced that 500 existing NYPD and MTA officers would be deployed to crack down on homelessness, fare evasion, and other quality-of-life issues in the subway—much to the frustration of some advocates.
Adding to the irritation, according to advocates and some board members, is that the MTA and the governor have repeatedly shifted their stated purpose for bringing in new cops.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Feinberg repeated her assertion that the new officers are entirely unrelated to fare evasion and homelessness. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts,” she said, after board members such as Vanterpool raised concerns about the new officers. NYC Transit President Andy Byford, who himself linked the new police officers to fare evasion, sat silently alongside Feinberg.
Cuomo, meanwhile, has explicitly drawn a link between the new officers and a crackdown on “quality of life” issues like farebeating and homelessness. Last month, he cited a “dramatic increase in crime in the subway system” as justification for the hiring, despite the fact that subway crime is near historic lows. He shifted that assessment this week, noting that “the feeling that subways are unsafe is up.”
A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office would not say whether Cuomo believes subway crime is becoming more prevalent. “The initiative is to combat violent incidents including robberies and assaults on transit workers, and hate crimes,” Dani Lever, his communication’s director, said in a statement.
On Tuesday, NYPD Chief of Transit Edward Delatorre told board members that overall crime in the subway is down this year, with “declines in nearly all categories of crime” compared to this time last year. He added that there was ” no NYPD crackdown on fare evasion.”
While the number of fare evasion arrests decreased this year, in line with a city policy, the number of overall fare evasion stops has exploded. According to data released by the NYPD, fare evasion summonses jumped from 42,814 to 65,538 in the first ten months of this year—a more than 50 percent increase.
Danny Pearlstein, a spokesperson for the Riders Alliance, described the shifting justification for the new policy as “gaslighting.”
“This is no way to make progressive policy,” Pearlstein added. “With this punitive turn in transit policy, the shadow of Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani feels very long right now.”
Additional reporting by Stephen Nessen.