Policing Our Subways III

Where Do We Go From Here?

Catch up on Part II here and Part I here.

…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?

This brings us to the innocuous definition of transit police, and for our purposes, we’re going to limit a review to New York1  2  3. We can gather from a close read of Policing the Open Road and a facile understanding of the due process of liability, access, and police power similarities and differences between what it means to police a private motor vehicle compared to what it means to patrol and control movement across a public transit system: 

Tort/Criminal Liability: 

DRIVING: For tort liability, drivers are responsible for their actions and activities while operating a motor vehicle.4 There’s a reason we license the ability to legally drive a car—you’re entering into a contract. There’s a reason car insurance, besides it being a racket5, is required and expensive. Someone has to pay for damage done to property. As for criminal liability, the jury’s out. It feels as though drivers are not held responsible for traffic violence, or at least not enough. Drivers who kill others behind the wheel often get probation, a fine, or a suspended sentence. Car murder? Ho-hum.

RIDING TRANSIT: This calculus is relatively simple for transit: by swiping or tapping into the Subway riders enter into an agreement that dictates rules and regulations and a code of conduct. This includes a specific list of dos and don’ts. For tort liability, riders are beholden to the rules of the jurisdiction and the rules of the system: no additional personal insurance is required. For criminal liability, well, that’s what we’re talking about here. It continues to be unclear the connection between stimuli and responses between the state’s actors and the individual riders. 

Search and Seizure: 

DRIVING: This is a premise of Professor Seo’s book. Please read it if you’re interested. The wide availability of the motor vehicle created a new cadre of jurisprudence around the idea of what rights drivers and passengers have while traveling inside of a private vehicle on a public road. Does the car act as an extension of a person or a “mobile property”—a domicile, where law enforcement is required to obtain a search warrant from a judge to enter a premises? Spoiler alert: there’s a whole art to interacting with law enforcement while on the road, but no, no warrant is needed.

RIDING TRANSIT: Well, here’s the rub, again. While riding the Subway, you’re again subject to search and seizure rules—recently, due to a misreading of crime statistics and a Sondheimeque attempt at theater—we’ve seen more and more police presence ready to search and seize, and generally police bodies. This increased presence feels like a threat more than a deterrent. It’s really taxing—to our wallets and to our presence of mind. 

David Zipper wrote for Vox, quoting Jeffrey Tumlin, San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority’s CEO: “I can either hire operators or hire security staff,” said Tumlin, noting that in the last year, his agency created 50 new security positions. “That’s a few bus lines’ worth of people.” In fact, high-frequency transit service is itself a powerful countermeasure against crime because it allows riders to exit uncomfortable situations without enduring a lengthy wait for the next vehicle.6

Literature Review—Making Sense of Praxis From The Right And Left

What does “safety” and “security” mean? Who says? Generally, this ideology follows additional praxis and theory from both the political right and left. A quick Google search for “modern policing slave catching,” brings up two conflicting answers: left-leaning responses will claim “yes,” and praise you for being a smartie pants and right-leaning pages will claim “no,” and blame you for having that thought in the first place. Does this same logic apply to Subway policing?

But before we dig into what policing our Subway actually costs us (it’s a lot of money, but it’s more than money, spoiler alert), we’ll want to build a base that we can use to judge the spending against. I’m making a cost versus benefit argument here—a statement of value—that will be defined by the values of the people who write and analyze the policy. 

If I’m going to make the argument that we’re wasting resources on increasing policing, I should make the strongest case my philosophical opponent could make and independently jab at it.7 But first, here are the value statements, in brief, for and against more policing in the Subway. The horseshoe of a political spectrum responds to these statements, both prophylactically and reactively. Through a close listen/read of both right and left there exist common refrains. I’d recommend you think about your stance on these statements as you filter more policing as an answer to all of these statements, should they be realized as action statements.

  • There’s a direct correlation between spending on police personnel and crime reduction on the Subway.

  • Additional surveillance and uniform presence deters crime.

  • More officers/first responders means faster response time to incidents.

  • Fare evasion is worth controlling through enforcement.

  • We should be investing in deterrents other than enforcement. 

  • Law and order across the Subway system is more important than protecting life and liberty.

Do any of these ideas have merit—at all? Should we hardline a data-driven approach8 that says two things: where “crime” is and where “models” predict it could/might be? Is the solution, then, tossing the simplest idea, but the hardest solution, at the issue—whatever that is: bodies? Bodies in uniform assault bodies moving through the system. Whether you think this very blunt instrument is the correct approach to deterrence—no doubt there are incidents—likely depends on your outlook and political leanings, how you value the life and body of people outside your direct line of sight and inner circle.

I’m going to run through a (short) bibliography to demonstrate just how divisive the commentary is. The common theme is this: no one knows what the hell they’re talking about, but they all love to yell agree and take adverbial pot-shots at each other; a lot of “experts” claim a whole domain as a palette to express their theory. Real people are dying—not as many as the shock media would have us believe—and real people face extra friction as they’re trying to move through the system. We’re not doing enough listening and we’re certainly not doing enough problem identification. Our solution from all angles is always just: more cops. The natural endgame of more cops is only cops—but who’s asking if we want to live in a police state? Where’s the justice? Where’s the peace?

Links: Spoiler Alert Everyone Agrees Spending Money On More Cops Is Stupid And A Waste Of Resources

I’ve selected more than a handful of thinkpieces, reported takes, and opinions from across the political spectrum. The American Prospect leans Left and the Manhattan Institute leans Right. Cato is a “libertarian” Think Tank and Vital City falls into the progressive far far left ocean from the far left docks. Clicking through a few of these should help daylight where the thinking is about policing, safety, and security abstractly and the lived reality of many Subway riders, concretely. I’m providing a wall of text here to demonstrate the overwhelming breadth of opinions that all say basically the same thing.

In doing this research one specific, counter-obvious trend rang true: neither the Right nor the Left argues for spending more resources on more policing, even though generally the Left seeks policy that deescalates conflict without police and the Right seeks to control bodies with more state-sanctioned force.9 So, if this surge in policing is not driven by direct ideology and identity…what is it and how much are we paying for the privilege to protect ourselves? 

In the final part(s) of this thought experiment, we’ve got to dig into the numbers—the “data-driven approach,” make the case. There will be a lot of graphs, maps, tables, and charts.

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  Technically, the City of New York owns the MTA’s infrastructure, but has had a Master Lease Agreement with the State for more than 70 years, such that the state assumes responsibility for the ownership and operation of the MTA. This blurs the line between whose police are responsible for “maintaining order and public peace” or whatever. For our purposes the NYPD is responsible for surveillance and interference on New York City Transit (buses and the Subway) and the MTA deploys officers to “protect” all other assets, including railyards and the Metro North and LIRR, among other entities).

2  The Port Authority has its own police department, which extends to New Jersey, but is limited to Port Authority properties.

3   Recently, Governor Hochul assigned some members of the National Guard to increase the capacity and touchpoints for safety and security. Said the governor: “My five-point plan will rid our subways of violent offenders and protect all commuters and transit workers. I am sending a message to all New Yorkers: I will not stop working to keep you safe and restore your peace of mind whenever you walk through those turnstiles.” This assumption that more “eyes on the system” simply must equal “safety and security” is what we’re talking about here.

4  For now.

5  Citation missing.

6  https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/23653855/covid-transit-fares-buses-subways-crisis, emphasis added.

7  Not using my argument. This technique is called steelmanning, and if executed properly helps to broaden arguments and create a stronger case for one’s own.

8  Whatever that means.

9  The other irony here is that the Right also seeks, in outdated theory, less government intervention, I guess, except when it’s easy to punish those not in your “in” group/community. The circular logic and hypocritical knots define the Right’s position more than the actual policy they’ve stopped suggesting does in 2024.

Join the conversation

or to participate.