New York Is Obsessing About Crime Again

The subways will be filled with cops due to the political class's conviction, in the face of all evidence, that it is still 1980.
May 18, 2021, 3:04pm
Police patroling the New York City subway
Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin / Contributor via Getty Images
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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Consider the following two transit systems. The first, in City A, has seen a disturbing increase in violent crime. Last year, murders were up 100 percent, rape 133 percent, and burglaries a whopping 228 percent over the prior year, even though ridership plummeted due to the pandemic. And that negative trend continued into this year, with murders up 50 percent and felony assaults 8 percent year over year.

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The other transit system, in City B, has seen the exact opposite. Robberies are down 31 percent, murders 50 percent, and grand larcenies are down 54 percent, year over year. Overall, the transit system is much safer, with total major felonies down more than 53 percent.

Why the difference? you might ask. What has City B done right to reduce crime and City A done wrong to let crime get out of control? These would of course be nonsense questions;  all the data above actually come from the same transit system, which runs New York City's subway and buses.

This might be confusing. How can crime be both up and down? How can the subway be both safe and unsafe? The answer is that crime data are notoriously slippery. There is, in fact, perhaps no type of data more manipulated and crammed into preconceived narratives than urban crime data. Thanks to CompStat and other data-driven approaches to urban policing, there are simply so many data available to anyone who wants to look at them that virtually any story anyone wishes can be fashioned out of them.

For further proof, look no further than some recent headlines. The U.S. saw "significant crime rise across major cities in 2020," one CNN headline blared, even as a WIRED headline accurately stated "Crime rates dropped in 2020." "Most crime rates fell sharply during COVID lockdowns and stayed down" said a MarketWatch opinion article written by a University of Pennsylvania professor who conducted a study on the issue; then again, "Massive 1-Year Rise In Homicide Rates Collided With The Pandemic In 2020," an NPR headline reported.  

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Nowhere has this Tale of Two Cities trend been more pronounced than in New York. The mayoral race has been desperately seeking a defining issue with more substance than "What's the deal with Andrew Yang?" and in recent weeks, it has found that issue in a spate of high-profile violent crimes, including a shooting in Times Square. For its part, the New York Times, which had only sporadically been covering the mayor's race, has published at least one article a day on the city's crime issue in recent weeks, cementing high crime as the defining campaign issue heading into the final month before the Democratic primary.   

Of particular focus during this sudden surge of interest in crime rates is the city's transit system. Over recent months, many leaders in the city have spent their time bickering about exactly how afraid you should be to ride the subway. New York State's governor, Andrew Cuomo, who controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the city's subway and buses, recently said he would tell his children to not ride the subway because "I'm afraid for my child." 

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Cuomo's allies at the MTA continue to inexplicably forward the narrative that their own system is dangerous. NYPD's Transit Chief Kathleen O'Reilly, of all people, though, accused them of "fear mongering" and added that "It’s a disservice to New Yorkers to advance a narrative that crime is soaring in the subways when it’s simply not the case.” (That 50 percent increase in murders, by the way, is an increase of one—up to three from two. People understand numerators and denominators when it comes to their fantasy baseball teams; when it comes to crime stats, less so.)

The latest compromise between city and state, given this situation, has resulted in what it always has: more police. The NYPD will deploy 250 more police officers to the subways, in addition to the 2,500 existing police and 500 added in February. 

No one trafficks in the Fear the Subway narrative—the exact one the New York police's transit chief protests against—more than Cuomo himself. On the same day Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city will add 250 more cops to the subway, Cuomo said in his own press conference that crime will always be the subway's biggest problem.

"The MTA is not perfect, has never been perfect, will never be perfect," Cuomo said. "The main problem the MTA has is crime. That's the main problem. It has been for quite some time, it has been pre-COVID."

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This has been, and remains, completely untrue. I covered the MTA from 2017 to 2019, during a period when the subway was undergoing a service meltdown so profound it resulted in international headlines. I routinely interviewed people who abandoned the subway for private modes of transportation or actually, literally left the city entirely because the subway was not meeting a basic level of competence. I also interviewed people who felt unsafe on the subway from time to time. But they were few and far among the throngs of New Yorkers whose most desperate wish for the beleaguered transit agency was for it to get them where they needed to go.

As misguided as they are, Cuomo's protestations about crime on the subway are worth paying attention to not just because he is governor—actually, literally in charge of this stuff—but because they are dog whistles, pitched to the ears of an increasingly small number of listeners who can even hear what he's actually saying. Emblematic of an entire generation of Americans who came of age in an era when cities really were genuinely dangerous places, when crime rates really were out of control, and when many New Yorkers really were afraid to ride the subway, Cuomo is selling fear. And there is an audience willing to buy what he and others are pitching, because the version of the city implicit in what they are hawking, no matter how outdated, will always be etched in their minds. 

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There are people old enough that 1980 or 1990 is imprinted on them. Crime will always be out of control for them; The Warriors and New Jack City will always be documentaries. For these people, due to the vagaries of generational control of urban and national government, the city will always be a threatening place. 

This easy way of looking at things misses the mark on what is currently going on in American cities, though, which is not a matter of narratives but of simple math. The only truth behind the masses of crime data produced on a daily basis nationwide in recent decades is that crime is a complex social phenomenon determined as much by demographics—mainly, how many young males there are—as any other factor, subject to all kinds of complicated statistical forces. (Normal variation means that observed crime goes up one year and goes down the next. The lower crime is, the higher the variation year to year, whether the police worked effectively under brilliant politicians or ineffectually under dunces, the same way a career .300 hitter will sometimes hit .280 and sometimes hit .320 for no more reason than that's how math works.)  All of this is made even more complex by the unprecedented and wildly unpredictable changes the pandemic has brought about. Murder rates are up in cities nationwide, but they tend to be isolated in high-crime neighborhoods with a history of violence. To assert any other cause-and-effect relationship is to do little more than offer a hypothesis; to draw any connection between what is happening in specific areas and what is happening more broadly in the cities to which they're connected is to draw a connection for which there's little to no evidence.

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The deeply uncomfortable truth about crime in American cities is that there's a lot no one knows about why it happens and how to prevent it. There are too many variables, too many moving parts and policies, and too many nuances and caveats to every possible theory. Easy answers will only get you so far. Crime was very high a few decades ago, and now crime is much lower. That's about all we know, and even that is now being challenged by our public officials, who implausibly argue that throwing more police at the issue will reverse this trend when we already have more police than ever before, and have as the numbers have dipped up and down.

If you're wondering what the end game is for Cuomo and his ilk, look no further than a previous subway crime controversy. A few years ago, a narrative seemed to develop out of thin air that fare evasion was a major problem in New York City and was, in fact, a key reason the MTA had tens of billions of dollars in debt and was projected to be unable to pay its bills within a few years. 

This theory didn't come out of thin air. In fact, it had a precise origin date. It began on July 25, 2018, during a board presentation about ridership trends. The question being asked was why people were increasingly choosing other modes of transportation other than the subway or bus. The obvious answer at the time was because the subway was utter crap, the result of decades of mismanagement including by Cuomo himself. But in the discussion afterwards, MTA board member Larry Schwartz baselessly claimed the subway was in fact not losing riders as the presentation had just demonstrated, but the only problem was those riders weren't being counted because of fare evasion. This was proposed despite the fact that the presentation he just sat through said it was "not a major contributor to the overall share in declining subway ridership." At the time, I wrote it was a "head-scratchingly obtuse remark" and left it at that.

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Schwartz was and is one of Cuomo's closest allies, though—he later became the state's vaccine czar—and fare evasion became his major initiative on the MTA board. In the ensuing months, he banged the fare evasion drum at every single board meeting. All the MTA's problems came down to fare evasion, he said, and if only the agency would crack down on fare evasion with increased police presence, all the problems would be solved. 

Six months later, the MTA gave another presentation to the Cuomo-controlled board completely reversing its previous position on fare evasion, claiming it cost the agency hundreds of millions of dollars a year based on a statistical study an independent investigation later found had a deeply flawed methodology. Schwartz and other Cuomo-appointed board members kept up the heat, even though the basic math didn't add up. (The MTA has an annual budget of about $17 billion, meaning the agency's own estimates of fare evasion's impact account for about 1.5 percent of its annual budget.)

It didn't matter that this was transparent nonsense; the fare evasion claims were useful, directing attention away from the patently obvious failures of the people in charge of the MTA, and got looped in with a few high-profile crimes to justify the initial 500 officer increase in the MTA's police force. Just as opponents of Schwartz's narrative had warned all along, increased fare evasion enforcement was and is disproportionately directed at low-income areas and communities of color; just as could have been predicted, the facts didn't matter because powerful people were able to use trumped-up claims to establish their own position and come out in favor of more policing—a popular position, generally, with people who vote. 

Critics weren't denying that fare evasion existed, just as no one today is denying that murders are increasing in certain neighborhoods in New York—and elsewhere—that have long wrestled with high murder rates. Instead, those skeptical of the fare evasion narrative in New York wanted to know why 2,500 existing police were apparently so ineffective and why 500 more would make a difference; why the MTA board wasn't talking more about the system design that made it easy to not pay fares, and why, if the MTA was so concerned about fare evasion, it seemed so hellbent on implementing an expensive policy that would, if history was any guide, have no impact on fare evasion rates.

What became increasingly clear to me, as someone raising questions about fare evasion policy, was that we were asking serious questions about non-serious policies. Schwartz never cared about fare evasion. He cared that we weren't talking about the debt and other fiduciary responsibilities the board and the governor were failing to uphold. 

The lesson from the fare evasion fight is that whenever politicians or public officials are arguing about crime, it is highly probable they are not actually talking about crime. They are not even necessarily talking about policy. They are signaling. There is likely some other issue at hand they're trying to distract from, such as mismanagement of a vital public agency, a sexual harassment investigation, a state ethics investigation, an FBI investgiation, or a messy primary campaign desperate for a defining issue.  It's nearly certain that even if approaching things in good faith, they're sending messages to people of their generation—people who disproportionately vote and put people their own age in power, people disconnected from the plain facts anyone who spends time out and about or who can properly read city statistics can grasp.

Crime is a real issue that—like garbage pickup or public transportation management—any city must always be monitoring and trying to improve. People are dying for reasons that, even if they're not well understood, are incumbent on government to address. And insofar as subway crime is increasing, there is virtually unanimous agreement it is closely linked with the mental health and homelessness crisis the city has been facing for some time. Fixing these and other related issues are not as easy as hiring more police; there is in fact no quick fix. Nobody ought to understand that better than New York City, and the MTA in particular.