Two days before Thanksgiving in New York City, Cynthia Kozikowski, a single mother of four and a transit activist involved with the non-profit Riders Alliance, got a call from the elementary school where her children are enrolled. Her youngest, 7, had an accident and needed a change of clothes. Kozikowski left her apartment near Woodlawn in the Bronx for the nearly hour-long commute to the school near Crotona Park.
There was a problem: Kozikowski had only one swipe left on her Metrocard. She made it to the school just fine, but the way home—at the end of the school day and with her four children in tow—was a different story. Kozikowski went under the turnstile, she said, with three of her four children using MetroCards, and the youngest ducking under with her. After getting off the train, the family boarded a bus at 233rd Street and White Plains Road without paying the fare. The bus hadn’t yet pulled away from the curb, she said, when the cops, wearing plain clothes with their badges around their necks, approached her.
“These transit cops—it’s kind of like entrapment—they literally act like they’re getting on the bus with everyone else,” she said, noting that the cops pulled other people off the bus as well. “Then they yank you off the bus. In front of everyone.”
Kozikowski, who says she lives on a fixed income and is unable to work due to having had five back surgeries over the past 10 years, tried to tell the police officer that she had just used her last swipe and that she was in between checks, all while comforting her four children, aged 7 to 14, who were terrified she would be taken to jail.
“It was humiliating,” she said. “[The cop] basically said, ‘Nope, too bad, too sad.’”
Kozikowski said the cop asked for her personal information, including her phone number and Social Security number, and that she refused to give it to him. He then wrote her a summons for boarding the bus “without rendering due payment,” according to the ticket viewed by VICE.
“The fine is $100 and there is no way, no how, that I can pay that,” she said. “So I don’t know what to do. Try to borrow the money and pay it, or try to fight it.”
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It wasn’t the first time Kozikowski had a run-in with transit cops. In July of last year, she said, she swiped through the turnstile using a 7-day Metrocard at the 149th Street and Third Avenue station in the Bronx while her then-13-year-old daughter ducked underneath. A cop stopped her daughter for fare-beating.
“She was so scared. The color drained from her face,” Kozikowski said. “I told him, ‘She’s not 18, she’s 13, and if you want proof, come to my apartment and I’ll show you her birth certificate.’ He said, ‘No, no, I’m sorry, she looked older.’”
Kozikowski, who is white, thinks her daughter’s race played a role in the interaction. (Her daughter, like her other children, is biracial.) She said the people in her community are mostly Black, some are Caribbean, and that she thinks this affects how her neighborhood and neighbors are policed.
“And now the AG is investigating,” Kozikowski said.
New York State Attorney General Leticia James announced on January 13 that her office will be looking into whether the NYPD’s fare-evasion enforcement policies have been disproportionately aimed at low-income areas and people and communities of color. Transit and civil rights activists have applauded the move; David Jones, MTA board member and the president of the non-profit Community Service Society of New York, said, “Mayor de Blasio has said he supports the AG’s inquiry. That’s good. It would be even better if the mayor directed his police department to [end] its longstanding practice of aggressive fare evasion enforcement in communities of color.”
This high-profile investigation has the potential to trigger radical changes in New York City’s transit policing—“Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” as Kozikowski said—but there’s no need to wait for James’s office to issue its findings to get at the truth.
Run-ins like the ones Kozikowski and her family have had with transit cops are hardly uncommon; more than 53,000 New Yorkers were issued summons for fare evasion in 2018. Finding out exactly how common they are has been nearly impossible, though, due to the NYPD’s years-long attempts at skirting a law requiring them to release detailed data on fare-evasion enforcement.
In 2017, Councilman Rory Lancman, who represents Jamaica and other neighborhoods in Queens, introduced legislation requiring the NYPD to report the number of arrests and summonses issued for subway fare evasion on a quarterly basis, broken down by subway station, transit bureau district, and race, sex, and age group. The legislation was passed unanimously.
After the NYPD and the city repeatedly blew deadlines to report the data, Lancman and the Community Service Society sued the city and the department for failure to comply and then filed a request for the data under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The NYPD finally did start releasing some data in 2018, but the spreadsheets included only the top 10 stations per category per quarter, and many of the stations aren’t properly identified. (For example, one station is referred to as 125th Street; there are four different stations that could be referencing, in different neighborhoods, with different racial and economic makeups. Another is identified as Jay Street-Borough Hall, which is the old name for the new and expanded Jay Street-Metro Tech station.) While the data the NYPD has made available can be used to identify general trends about fare evasion enforcement, they’re not enough, as CSS senior economist Harold Stolper told VICE, to discern “any useful information about law enforcement patterns at the station level.”
Eventually, in September 2019, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that the NYPD’s argument against releasing the complete data—that detailed information about arrests and summonses at specific subway stations could attract criminals—was “speculative at best, and improbable at worst,” and said that the department had to fulfill Lancman's FOIL request for the data. Last fall, Lancman finally received the complete set of data about all 423 stations from the fourth quarter of 2017 through the first quarter of 2018, and turned it over to CSS and Stolper.
Previous reporting and research, along with the lived experiences of New Yorkers, has shown that the vast majority of people arrested for fare evasion are Black and Latinx. (When someone is stopped for fare evasion, the police can either arrest them or issue a $100 summons. The Manhattan District Attorney decided in September 2017 that he would no longer prosecute fare evasion, so now cops are more likely to give a summons.) In September, the New York Daily News wrote, “Of the 682 people arrested for fare evasion from April through June, 86% of them were black or Latino.” According to research by CSS that analyzed fare-evasion arrest data from the two public defender organizations operating in Brooklyn, “arrests for fare evasion not only overwhelmingly involve young black men, but are highly concentrated at subway stations located in high-poverty black neighborhoods.” And in December 2019, as the New York Times reported, NYPD officers sued the department after their commanders told them to ignore white and Asian people in the subway in favor of targeting Black and Latinx people for minor offenses like turnstile jumping.
Now, though—and only after the NYPD was dragged kicking and screaming through the court system—people outside the department have comprehensive data on every arrest and summons for each of the 423 subway stations in the MTA system over a period of six months. The benefit of such information is that the public can see what their paid servants are doing. The utility of it is that it can be analyzed, and a preliminary read by Stolper confirms the obvious: Fare-evasion enforcement rates are higher in high-poverty neighborhoods, and there is far more fare-evasion enforcement in high-poverty neighborhoods that are predominantly Black and Latinx compared to high-poverty white and Asian neighborhoods. In a CSS report titled “The MTA’s False Fare Evasion Narrative,” Stolper writes:
"We used this new data to analyze the subway stations—and by extension surrounding neighborhoods—where fare evasion enforcement occurred during the fourth quarter of 2017 and first quarter of 2018. While this period is before the public face of any fare evasion crackdown began, this data allows us to identify 24,788 subway fare evasion enforcement actions over this period. This includes 19,512 summonses and 5,276 arrests. (The NYPD has yet to release any data on bus fare evasion enforcement.)"
Image via the Community Service Society of New York
The data also show which individual subway stations and transit districts had the highest rates of fare-evasion enforcement; for example, the top three stops were all stations in the Far Rockaways with relatively low ridership. Combined with census data about racial demographics and poverty levels, the data provide a stark look at what fare-evasion enforcement in New York City has been like: Cops busting people with greater frequency in high-poverty Black and Latinx neighborhoods.
“It’s only by getting the granular station-by-station data—that we were forced to sue to get, even though the release of that data was required both by city law and the FOIL laws—that enabled us to see able to see just how stark the discrimination is,” Lancman told VICE.
This interactive map, created by Stolper, shows the rate of enforcement (red circles) overlaid on neighborhoods coded by poverty-level and racial demographics. For example, it shows orange and red circles in the Bronx, especially in Transit Districts 11 and 12, where Kozikowski lives and commutes. Given the specificity of the data, the analysis shows not only where enforcement was happening, but how. For example, certain transit districts relied on arrests more than other districts. In District 12 in the Bronx and District 33 in Brooklyn and Queens, the CSS report says, arrests accounted for 32 percent of enforcement actions. In the rest of the city’s transit districts, arrests accounted for only 22 percent of enforcement actions.
While the map shows that there are pockets of high enforcement rates in East New York and other parts of Brooklyn, the most noticeable section is the Far Rockaways in Queens. Transit District 23 had the lowest ridership of any transit district, but more than twice as many enforcement actions per MetroCard swipe as any other district—more than four times the citywide rate.
Image via the Community Service Society of New York
The data reveal that six of the top 10 stations in terms of fare evasion enforcement rates were along one run of A-train stops in Rockaway, Queens. Many of the Rockaway stations are among the least busy in the system in terms of ridership, and only the last stop, at Far Rockaway-Mott Ave., has annual ridership of at least 1 million. According to the data, there was an anomaly with fare evasion enforcement in Transit District 23.
With this knowledge in mind, VICE caught the A train.
"I hop the turnstile, and I’m not a criminal."
On a chilly Thursday in January, just before noon, two police officers entered the 80th Street subway station in Queens, the first stop in Transit District 23. About 10 minutes later, they boarded a Lefferts-bound A train, where they roused a man with blue sneakers without laces, who was laying down across several seats. (“You gotta get up, buddy. You have to sit up or I’ll have to give you a summons. I don’t want to do that,” one officer said, before handing him a granola bar.) The cops rode the train until the end of the line at Lefferts, at which point, having picked up on the fairly obvious fact that they had a notebook-toting tail, one officer, whose badge read “Saha,” politely asked where I was headed. Explaining that I work for VICE, I said I was interested in seeing how transit policing worked in District 23, and outlined the findings of the new data, which show that the district had, over a given period of time, the highest rates of fare evasion arrests and summons in the city. What, I asked, could account for that?
Image via the New York City Police Department
Saha offered that District 23 officers were responsible for clearing the train of passengers, including homeless people, right there at the last stop where we were standing. With regard to fare evasion, the other officer, whose badge read “Quinn,” said that the MTA was a private company and that as such, people who used the service were subject to the rules, just like at any other private establishment. (The MTA is, in fact, a public authority run by a board of government appointees and a leadership team appointed by the governor. NYPD officers are government employees.)
The officers were uninterested in a conversation about how fare-evasion enforcement policies can serve to criminalize poverty, and Quinn suggested speaking to the NYPD’s public information office. (Detective Denise Moroney of NYPD Public Information declined to make the commanding officer for District 23 available for an interview. She also declined to make the CO of District 11 and the former CO for District 12, both of which are in the Bronx and have had high rates of fare-evasion enforcement, available for interviews. In a statement to VICE, the NYPD said, "Officers enforce fare evasion if a specific condition exists that requires enforcement of that law, without consideration of race or ethnicity. Regarding data, the NYPD posts transit enforcement data on its public website quarterly.") Then the officers went to go check on the man with the blue sneakers, who had not left the train.
At Beach-36 Street Station, two teenagers squeezed through the turnstile on one swipe.
Waiting for their train on the platform, 17-year-old Isaac R. admitted that he hops the turnstiles. He said he was stopped once last summer when he was with his sister, but was let off with a warning because he had never been in trouble before. Isaac compared fare-evasion enforcement to stop-and-frisk. “They stop people for [fare evasion],” he said, “but they’re looking for something else.”
“For people who really can’t afford it, they’re trying to get to work or get to school, it can be difficult,” he said. “I mean, I hop the turnstile, and I’m not a criminal. This is a high-poverty area. This is like the hood of Queens.”
Not everyone agrees. At Far Rockaway-Mott Ave., an MTA employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because MTA workers are not allowed to talk to the press, said the MTA needs more police in the system.
“The MTA is losing a lot of money because people are jumping the turnstiles and police don’t give tickets,” the worker said. “If people work, they can afford the fare. If they can’t, then stay home.”
“Many people have half-fare cards,” the person added. “They’re spoiled.”
A convenient set of arguments
This argument, distilled by one chatty worker, neatly sums up the bulk of the MTA’s position on fare evasion. As the official narrative goes, the data show that fare evasion is increasing and costing the MTA hundreds of millions of dollars, and that more police are therefore needed to crack down on the freeloaders.
There is no credible evidence to support these claims. In late 2018, the MTA put out a PowerPoint presentation showing that fare evasion was rising to historically high levels, hitting $215 million that year. However, the MTA’s own inspector general questioned the data’s validity, citing numerous methodological flaws. In her report about the data, she said that an MTA analyst who worked on the fare evasion survey suggested that the city’s Transit Operations Planning division “saw the project as an internal management tool to get an estimate of the problem, not an official analysis whose results would be formally reported to the MTA board or considered a robust and reliable estimate of revenue loss.” Perhaps predictably, the data were then presented as an official analysis, the results of which were formally reported to the MTA board to create an estimate of revenue loss. (According to a spokesperson, the “MTA has brought on an independent expert to evaluate and build upon our existing methodologies for estimating the rates of fare evasion across the system.“)
The MTA used the survey again to claim it would lose $300 million in revenue in 2019. The number represents a mere fraction of the MTA’s $17 billion annual operating budget and essentially pins blame for the system’s budget woes on the poor; it also overlooks both other potential solutions and other areas of potential savings. The MTA could prevent fare evasion by widening turnstiles—while maintaining accessibility—and doing away with the emergency exit doors that let people walk through without paying, or redesigning the turnstiles, which are trivially easy to hop or duck under. (This of course would cost the debt-ridden system dearly.) Another alternative would be for the MTA to wait and see what effect the Fair Fares program has on fare evasion; the city-run rollout of the program, which allows low-income New Yorkers to buy half-fare cards, has been frustratingly slow and was only completed on January 27. (Cynthia Kozikowski, who advocated for the Fair Fares program, told VICE she signed up as soon as she could.) But aside from fixating on the relatively small cost associated with fare evasion, the MTA could save big by cutting down on epic waste and bloated construction projects.
(In a statement, MTA spokeswoman Abbey Collins said, “Fare evasion is an approximately $300 million annual problem that deprives the transit system of critical resources resulting in less frequent service and dirtier trains and is unfair to the vast majority of New Yorkers who do pay their fair share.")
The claim that fare evasion is a serious problem is convenient because it supports an argument that more policing is needed, even as transit activists from groups like Swipe It Forward, Riders Alliance, and Decolonize This Place have argued against increased police presence in the system. Recently, activists with Swipe It Forward pointed to the disproportionate police response to a legal protest over pricing and fare-evasion enforcement as evidence of overpolicing in the subway.
(In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office said, "This Administration has taken a dead aim at disparity by dramatically reducing fare evasion arrests. But, it’s naïve to think that an issue as old and complex as this can be unraveled and solved by the snap of anyone’s fingers.”)
The MTA and NYPD have justified increased police presence as a response to public-safety issues. Despite several high-profile crimes in the subway, both police and the MTA say the subway is safe. But spending for more cops in the subway still continues to grow.
In December, the MTA Board voted to approve a $17 billion 2020 budget that included $249 million for an additional 500 MTA cops; an MTA spokesperson said that to the extent they would be concerned with fare evasion, they would be focused on deterrence. It’s unclear if that means they would not, for example, be issuing summons. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who appoints a majority of the board members, supported the police expansion. (His office declined to comment for this story.) Of the 12 board members who voted on the budget, three, including David Jones, the president of CSS, voted against.
“If fare evasion is indeed on the rise—which is not obvious given the lack of credibility of the MTA’s survey methods—any viable solution must address the economic need that often drives people to do it,” Jones said in a statement ahead of his no vote on the budget.
Other board members argued for the increased police presence, citing quality-of-life issues and public-safety concerns, even though the total number of serious subway crimes fell nearly 4 percent in 2019 to 6.7 felonies a day—about one for every 800,000 riders, per NY1.
“Security, especially for women, in closed circumstances like subways and other train systems is vitally important—and that peace of mind and security is brought to bear by seeing a law enforcement person whose job it is to keep everyone safe and secure,” MTA board member Linda Lacewell said.
Speaking to VICE, Veronica Vanterpool, who left the board last month to head up innovation at the Delaware Transit Corporation, characterized this line of reasoning as myopic.
“This isn't a binary discussion, so I resent comments that equate a vote against spending money for 500 more officers as a vote against public safety and in support of increased crime in the transit system,” Vanterpool said. “Everyone wants a safe system. I just want to see a logical, data-driven rationale for this budget decision."
She'll probably remain waiting. The leading narratives about fare evasion aren’t tied to logic or reason, but rather to specious claims about the reasons why New York’s lavishly funded transit system is failing and politically driven arguments for law-and-order policies that affect real people. They're offered because they serve a function. The ultimate value of the data Lancman and CSS have obtained, and which the NYPD fought so hard to hide, may just be in showing precisely which people and which communities pay a price to serve others' ends.
“Reviewing the data carefully, you can certainly see why the NYPD worked as hard as they did to keep it from the public,” Lancman said. “If this does not finally motivate the Mayor and the police department to fundamentally change fare-evasion enforcement, then I don’t know what will.”
This piece has been updated to add further comment from the MTA. It has also been corrected to properly describe Veronica Vanterpool's current job.