Policing Our Subways II

The Origins of Transportation Policing

Catch up on Part I here.

A theory of policing

It’s the most natural thing in the world to assume and to continue to assume that police have always existed in contemporary society because it’s terribly impossible to imagine the opposite; a world without police. For many, myself included, this is a dream and a goal: a world without state brutality awkwardly and terrifyingly issued with impunity and partiality. A world where conflict is met with grace, not violence, and a world where the powerful coalesce their resources for community rather than control. 

As long as there has been interpersonal conflict—and a state—there’s been state interference to try and limit this conflict. It manifests as preventative then responsive: pattern recognition informs where the state should install deterrents, and should those deterrents fail, the state intervenes. The idea is that this procedure should ensure public safety is wildly misunderstood, inconsistently communicated, and rooted in different definitions for different people. The idea that a police presence should make people feel safe, too, is a key input into an overall theory of security that may or may not hold true in practice. Still, we’re pouring police into our tunnels. 

Policing is complicated, but it’s not in a, “Policing is complicated, period” way. There’s a lot of nuance that conflicting theories and arguments face, not only from a what perspective, but a how, how much, and who perspective. Most everyone we’ll meet in our lives will have had some interaction with state-sponsored security, some positive, and some negative. Each of those individual interactions shapes how we feel about the past, present, and future of policing as a theory and as a job. Here are some questions that I’ll leave outstanding because I’m not an expert on this subject; I tend to be thoughtful and don’t want to claim to be anything I’m not. BUT: 

  • What are the political, ethical, and practical implications of intervention? Who gets to decide what this looks like for each object we’re asking our state to keep secure?

    Corollary: How about prevention?

  • How important is it that a local policing operation be rooted in community values—that the “policing” is meant to protect and serve the safety and security of people and customs and not simply protect the American sanctity of private property?

    Corollary: how important is it that the human element of policing—most often represented by “officers” of the law—physically look like the community they’re tied to? How many white cops should be patrolling BIPOC neighborhoods, as a matter of principle?

  • What does the gap look like between what cops are publicly supposed to do and what they’re legally obligated to do? Ask yourself: why didn’t the cops rush in and save the babies who died in Uvalde? I implore you to find me a counter-example.

    Corollary: How does this manifest via a communications gap? How do we make sure that people are offered exact facts—if not a clear model for how to interpret them?

  • Why do we insist that the best way to ensure security is by heavily arming a small platoon of untrained soldiers within the community and seeking to punish those who would argue that there’s got to be another way? 

    Corollary: How much of this argument is based on the politics and culture of a place?

  • Why do we INSIST that our attorneys—who defend the law—attend 3 years of post-bac and pass a difficult exam, but allow our officers—who enforce it, often with brutality that matches a military offensive and armed to the teeth with assault weapons and TANKS—to enter this line of work after a minimum of 7 weeks of training? 

    Corollary: How are we making sure that these law-ers are acting from the same set of requirements and expectations? 

I’m looking to make an argument here that more police in and on our transit systems are not necessarily tied to more safety and security on these systems but are instead installed to ensure the state looks like it’s responding to “crime.”1 I want to make the corollary argument that a more effective response to real and perceived crime is just running more damn trains. 

A (brief) history of policing transportation

There’s a long-running praxis connecting transportation with policing. We’ve built complex systems that allow freedom of movement(in theory) and also allow the expansion of surveillance and policing (in practice), and—if I’m interpreting and restating correctly—gave the State a challenging new power to help skirt the Fourth Amendment: the car was neither a home nor a person and therefore not subject to established due process regarding unreasonable search and seizure. There’s a whole host of state laws concerning what does and doesn’t constitute a lawful search for those traveling on state roads and below (county, local, authority, etc); and there’s a preemptive Federal law for those traveling along the Interstate Highway System. I’m not a lawyer and my understanding is facile, but the point here is this: there’s also a whole host of laws and procedures that apply to traveling within a Subway system. So much so that there’s a whole division of police dedicated to keeping our tracks free and clear of …crime? 

I want, again, to defer to the experts here. Sarah Seo, a tenured law professor at Columbia Law School and author of Policing the Open Road, writes the following about the professionalization of policing and the car as catalyst for what we expect from a modern, mobile police force: 

Confronted with the authority of the police to inspect and to intrude, the automobile was not quite the unmitigated freedom machine it was celebrated to be. In fact, driving, or even just being in a car, was the most policed aspect of everyday life.

The automobile paradox offers a sense of how completely cars transformed the conditions of freedom in the twentieth century. Motorized vehicles offered unprecedented mobility, but at the same time their mass adoption created mass chaos that threatened everyone’s safety.2

—Sarah Seo

Two salient points I want to briefly mention here: the history of policing rail in the US is radically different than policing automobiles and the professionalization of police affects different people differently based mostly on the color of their skin. 

Definitions of both rail and car travel consider the idea of “freedom.” For a driver, the authority to take a trip from any point A to any point B at any time is freedom. For a rail user, the freedom to not have to own and maintain a metal death box just to get around is freedom. One line of thought is concerned with individual liberty and the other with bridging the individual/collective divide. They are similar in that policing both requires a definition of what’s legally authorized and what’s a social or societal norm. They’re both concerned with movement and how state actors should interrupt the freedom to be left alone. 

How much should we spend on this and to what end?

From other sources and historical records (and I’ll shorthand this, too), there’s a relatively straightforward history of policing railroads, beginning in the mid-19th century. With the expansion of private (freight and passenger3) rail starting in 1835, there also birthed a movement of equally “ambitious” people4 who sought to take advantage of a new fixed-route, scheduled cache of expensive goods. Railroads—mostly private ventures—would endow private law enforcement to catch train robbers with what felt like a diminishing economy of scale.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this refrain: there’s been an increase in theft so we’re going to increase surveillance and policing of space. We’re not seeing a decrease in theft, so we’re going to once again increase surveillance and policing of space and bodies. We’ve either manufactured a crisis so we can justify the increase in surveillance and policing of space, bodies, and crime, or, more likely, we’ve continued to waste resources in a blustering effort to maintain law and order. 

But what is crime? And where does the authority to police come from? How does it manifest in modern society—and the crux of our argument—how does it manifest across our transportation and transit systems? 

The long story is too long for this piece—what is crime?—is a loaded question from the right, center, and left; we, the people, define what “crime” is and if “crime” exists. Our legal and procedural frameworks then followed a developed, legal framework to “police” it—through the US Constitution. Generally, it’s accepted that there’s a “general” police power—the incumbency on the federal government to “enact laws to coerce its citizenry for the public good.”5 This idea manifests in the 5th, 10th, and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, though for our narrower analysis, we’ll focus on the 10th, which explicitly directs a general police power to the states because this power isn’t explicitly delegated to the Fed. The states, then, have ultimate authority over the legislative powers and administrative process that form state and other “police departments,” which ostensibly train officers to enforce the jurisdiction’s laws. This same power, if granted, applies to transit authorities, which operate under a license from the state.

I’ve spent a long time researching this article attempting to source the history, theory, and justification of policing. Even though authority manifests from the US Constitution’s definition of unenumerated powers, the very foundation for policing feels antiquated, doesn’t it? As is often the case in anthropological debate, there’s very little that will tie policing to any sort of Big Fact about humanity, at least from a Western perspective. There are strands of God and the Sovereign, a rigorous debate pinning order vs justice via warrior vs guardian6 as two axes on a dart board, and an argument about first principles that interweaves power, subjugation, and race and asks us to rethink what we know about policing for the good of a functioning democracy—for who? At its core, in 2024 policing is as it was, political, and support is split, mixed, and, at best, misunderstood.

Are we really safer if only some of us are safer while others are less safe? We know Black bodies take the trauma—so by adding more cops what are we saying to BIPOC riders?

Tune in tomorrow for Part III.

Sam Sklar is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. Sam is a transportation planner and writer. He's worked on projects all over the world that focus on safety, dignity, economic development, and environmental sustainability. For this publication his focus is on transportation and infrastructure policy. Sam graduated with a Master's in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania's Weitzman School of Design and a Bachelor's from Boston University's Questrom School of Business. He also runs the Exasperated Infrastructures blog. You can follow him on Twitter, Threads, and LinkedIn.

1  This is called “security theater,” coined by public-interest technologist, Bruce Schneier: “The best defences against terrorism are largely invisible: investigation, intelligence, and emergency response. But even these are less effective at keeping us safe than our social and political policies, both at home and abroad. However, our elected leaders don’t think this way: they are far more likely to implement security theater against movie-plot threats.”

2  Seo, S. A. (2021). Policing The open road: How cars transformed american freedom. Harvard University Press. pp. 11-12

3  Remember, public provision and maintenance of passenger rail in the US wasn’t codified until 1971, when the federal government authorized Amtrak, and precluded freight rail operators from carrying less profitable, uh, people.

4  My colleague, Anaiah Johnson, called them “land pirates” during our editing sessions. That’s accurate.

5  https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/police_powers, but the next part of the sentence also argues that there’s not a particular consensus of what the “public good,” is.

6  I’ve borrowed “warrior vs guardian” from Jill Lepore’s excellent piece in The New Yorker from 2020 called, “The Invention of Police.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20/the-invention-of-the-police


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