March 31, 2024 - 5:00pm

New York Mayor Eric Adams, who has supported a recent influx of police into the subway system, was taken to task in a viral Friday interview with a progressive attorney who argued that increased police presence makes some passengers feel less safe — a charge Adams disputed.

The attorney accused him of fear-mongering about subway crime and promoting heavy policing that was racially biased and violated New Yorker’s constitutional rights. The conversation perfectly distilled the problem Democratic city leaders are now facing: how they can rein in crime while retaining their progressive bona fides.

The subway system recently became host to 1,000 additional law enforcement officials, most of them members of the National Guard, as concerns mounted over high profile, random violent crimes within the train system.

This move came after a conductor was slashed across the neck while on the job in late February. The past two years have also seen passengers shoved in front of moving trains and fatally shot within the city’s underground train network. Just this past week, a man was killed after being pushed onto the tracks in an apparently random attack; the man police identified as responsible had a history of homelessness, mental health problems and violent crime. He had been placed on supervised release after he was charged in October for assault and menacing and criminal possession of a weapon.

The attacks are part of a larger problem with the city’s approach to crime — one that won’t be resolved by the large-scale hassling of ordinary subway passengers by the US military. A small number of known repeat offenders are responsible for much of the crime, and criminal justice reform efforts that began in 2019 are to blame.

“We find ourselves arresting the same people over and over again,” NYPD transit chief Michael Kemper recently said. “In 2023, NYPD cops made over 13,600 arrests in the subway system. 124 of those individuals were arrested five or more times in the subway system last year alone. These 124 people alone
 totalled over 7,500 arrests in their lifetime.”

The city maintains an informal list of the 50 homeless people most in need of treatment and most resistant to help. One man on the list was Jordan Neely, who was killed on the subway last year after allegedly threatening violence; he had been arrested at least three dozen times before, including for several violent offences, but he continued to roam the streets with an active arrest warrant over his head.

It wasn’t always so. Up until early 2020, the subways were very safe, according to Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. The implementation of criminal justice reform policies, including bail reform and the then-DA’s decision to stop prosecuting fare evasion arrests, were the primary driving factors behind the spike in subway crime, she told UnHerd.

“You had a complete pullback in policing during the first few months of Covid. Police basically making no arrests. People got used to an environment of total lawlessness,” she said. “Although the police are now making more arrests, issuing more summons, you still have the issue of very little happens to these people once they’re put into the criminal justice system.”

The data bears out her claims about criminal justice reform and subway crime; reports of felony assault in the subway system rose 53% from 2019 to 2023, and only 22% feel safe riding the subway at night, down 25 percentage points from 2017.

Failure to prosecute lower-level crimes, and the police’ subsequent reluctance to make arrests for those crimes, means the authorities miss opportunities to stop criminals who go on to commit more serious offences while in the subway. “Most people who beat the fare aren’t going to kill someone, but pretty much everyone who kills someone beat the fare,” Gelinas said.

Indeed, police in the Bronx stopped a fare evader Thursday evening only to find that the man, a convicted murderer, was carrying a gun and a felony quantity of crack cocaine while on parole, according to the NYPD chief of transit.

Some of the 2019 criminal justice reform provisions are being rolled back at the state level, expanding the police’ ability to involuntarily detain the mentally ill and walking back bail reform. But New York remains the only state in the country without a danger standard, meaning judges can’t detain someone they believe is a danger to the community.

Adams’ office has touted its efforts to hire more clinicians and connect the mentally ill on the subways with medical services, but this won’t necessarily resolve the city’s reluctance to involuntarily detain those who pose a danger to the public on a long-term basis. The same goes for highly publicised AI scanners meant to keep guns out of the subway: even if it completely eliminates guns from the subway, it can’t stop mentally ill criminals from throwing passengers onto the tracks.

A more robust response to crime might involve a state-level danger standard, along with a push from prosecutors to pursue charges even for the crimes they perceive to be low-level, particularly serial fare evasion. Elected leaders will struggle from both a practical and public relations standpoint to resolve the unchecked crime problem they have allowed to fester under the surface.

is UnHerd’s US correspondent.