After Feuding With MTA Over Subway Safety, NYC Agrees To Add Volunteer Police Officers Underground

The NYPD announced an agreement Friday to send auxiliary police officers to the 20 busiest subway stations, after weeks of the MTA and the city being at loggerheads over safety and crime in the transit system. Auxiliary officers are “trained to observe and report conditions requiring the services of the regular police,” according to the NYPD. They are all volunteers.

The NYPD did not say how many volunteers would be sent, but added that the auxiliary officers would be deployed with a police officer. This move follows a week of horrific attacks on transit workers, in which one off-duty conductor was slashed with a box cutter, and another knocked unconscious after confronting a rider smoking on a train.

“We know our employees and customers agree: 87% of riders say that seeing a visible presence in our system is very important to them,” New York City Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg wrote in a statement.  

“The addition of these officers is a good step forward – but make no mistake more needs to be done to ensure the system comes back, and in turn the city comes back,” Feinberg continued. “We know that in order for more and more people to return to mass transit they need to feel safe. That’s why we continue to call on the city to add additional full-time police officers and mental health resources to the subway system immediately.”

Feinberg announced Thursday that she had just hired an additional 100 private security guards to patrol the subways, doubling the current number.

The MTA and city have been offering different perspectives of safety in the subways. Even while the number of crimes has fallen in some categories, the MTA insists there have been too many attacks on workers and customers, considering ridership is now lower than it was before the pandemic. Governor Andrew Cuomo added to the chorus, saying on Monday, “I’m not telling my child to ride the subway, because I’m afraid for my child.” But the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio continued to insist the subways have never been safer.

Speaking on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show Friday, before the NYPD’s announcement about the added auxiliary police, de Blasio did not commit to adding more resources. He also continued to insist the MTA has been playing political games about safety conditions in the subways, and that the NYPD has a handle on crime underground.

“It’s fear mongering, I’ve never seen anything like it,” de Blasio said, referring to MTA leadership. “People constantly saying it isn’t safe, when it is.”

At a recent MTA board meeting, the head of transit police still insisted the subways are the safest they’ve ever been in history.

One riders advocacy group sounded skeptical about whether adding auxiliary officers was the answer, given the existing police force and lack of other support.

“By agreement between the city and state dating back decades, there are thousands of armed, salaried NYPD officers in the subway today,” Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director with Riders’ Alliance, wrote in a statement. 

He said unarmed volunteer police will “add more eyes to the transit system.” But he said, “Improving safety for transit workers and riders means safe staffing levels, more personal protective equipment, and housing and mental health care solutions. Governor Cuomo, who controls the transit system, is responsible for it and must stop his fear campaign of undermining the city’s recovery by scaring people away from the subway we depend on.”

What The Data Say

The NYPD keeps many statistics about crime in the subways, which tell a partial story about what’s happening underground. But the MTA keeps a different set of statistics, which offers another story about what transit workers experience on the rails. Neither are mutually exclusive, but when paired side by side they do show a complicated picture.

In some crime categories, a very small change in numbers can lead to a big percentage increase. As of May 2nd, the NYPD reported four murders in the subways, compared to three during the same period in 2020. That’s an increase of 33%. And there have been 159 felony felony assaults for 2021, compared to 132 at the same time last year—an increase of 20%.

But overall, the NYPD says major subway crime is down about half compared to 2020. The numbers seem to be driven down primarily by the 62% decrease in grand larceny, a crime more easily conducted in large crowds.

However, the MTA and the Transport Workers Union say crime against subway workers is on the rise. The union says it knows of cases in which its members were assaulted or harassed and either didn’t notify the police or didn’t file charges. The MTA and union continue to insist that workers are being injured by unruly or mentally ill customers on a near daily basis. 

Gothamist reviewed MTA incident reports, which are created at a central hub called the Rail Control Center, after receiving a complaint from a transit worker. So far this year, there have been 94 reports of attacks on transit workers, compared to 60 during the same period last year. 

The reports detail many instances of violence and sexual assault against transit workers. A station agent on her lunch break at Canal Street was hit in the head by a piece of wood from an unruly passenger. And a conductor reported a man pulled out his penis and touched her with it. There are multiple incidents of transit workers having bottles thrown at them. And spitting incidents are so numerous, the MTA and union have been urging state lawmakers to increase the penalties, hoping that might help drive the numbers down.

While the MTA has been asking for more police officers to patrol the subways, the MTA’s chairman recently went so far as to accuse Mayor de Blasio of “defunding the police.” 

Mayor de Blasio said the 500 additional officers sent to patrol the subways in February are still deployed and haven’t been pulled back. 

He also said the subways are safe. “My children take the subway all the time,” de Blasio said Thursday. “If you said to one of my kids, ‘oh, you shouldn’t go on the subway. It’s not safe.’ They would laugh you out of the room, they would tell you, you clearly couldn’t be a real New Yorker.”

Early Thursday morning, an off-duty MTA conductor was slashed in the neck and face with a box cutter and sent to intensive care. Speaking outside of Jamaica hospital later that day, where the conductor was still being treated, MTA Chairman Pat Foye said the incident just underscores the need for more security.

“People need to be safe, and people need to feel safe while riding subways, buses, commuter rails period,” Foye said. “Or they won’t come back to transit, which means not coming back to New York City.”

The MTA will resume 24-hour subway service on May 17th.

Gothamist