As NYPD officers flooded the streets of Brooklyn minutes after a man tossed two smoke bombs and opened fire on a busy subway train, the first cop on the scene struggled to call for backup. He couldn’t get his radio to work and asked the bloodied and panicked passengers to call 911 for him, according to the New York Times.
The surveillance camera in the 36th Street station in Sunset Park, as well as the cameras in the stations before and after that one, were also not working.
A total of 3,500 cops currently patrol New York City’s subway system, including an additional 250 that Mayor Eric Adams deployed in response to an increase in violent crime there over the course of the pandemic. And in September, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs the subway, announced that every single station had a camera.
While Tuesday's attack was a rare case of gun violence on the nation’s largest transit system, the accused gunman initially avoided detection, led cops on a 30-hour manhunt across multiple boroughs, and then called to turn himself in. That’s left some New Yorkers wondering if the extra security is doing much good.
“I think what we saw yesterday is the limits of law enforcement and also the limits of technology. The MTA’s cameras failed. The police radio failed,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy director with the Riders Alliance, a New York City public transportation commuter advocacy group. “It shouldn’t be about jumping to the most obvious or high-profile response but asking ‘What can we do within our power immediately that would be impactful in New York City?’”
Adams, a former police officer himself, has already used the shooting to call for doubling the amount of officers patrolling the subway. The Police Benevolent Association, the largest NYPD union in the city, also made the case for more police patrols around the city.
“Anyone who witnessed the subway transformation in the '90s knows that cops *can* turn this crisis around,” the union wrote on its Twitter account Wednesday. “But yesterday the bad faith, anti-cop takes started flowing literally before the smoke cleared. So the real question is: Will we be allowed to?”
Though she wasn’t there during Tuesday’s shooting, Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights attorney, member of one of the city’s community boards, and former candidate for Manhattan district attorney, commutes to Sunset Park from her neighborhood of Harlem several times a week.
“I wasn’t thinking, ‘We need more police,’” Aboushi said. “I was more thinking, ‘How could we expect officers to have prevented this?’ If you're going to double the amount of police on the trains, what is that guaranteeing? Are we learning anything from this? Are we stepping back to ask, ‘How did we miss this in the first place and where can we fill in the gaps?’”
Crime is up in New York City. The first three months of 2022 saw a 44 percent increase in overall crime compared to the same period last year in the city, according to police. They blamed the upward trend on New York State’s lenient bail laws and shift away from traditional incarceration, a department official told the New York Daily News. Transit system arrests, in particular, have increased 64 percent —but so have summonses for minor offenses like smoking and fare evasion, the Gothamist reported earlier this month.
The increased crackdown on minor offenses, however, is one of the core reasons the legal world is hesitant to throw more cops at the problem.
“There are hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers of color who have been surveilled and harassed and stopped and frisked by the police,” said Justine Olderman, a public defender of 22 years and the executive director of Bronx Defenders. “Increasing police presence would not result in increasing the perception of safety for everyone.”
Nevertheless, Adams has responded to the increase in crime, in part, by cracking down on the homeless community, which has shouldered much of the blame for the violence, especially on the subway. In January, a mentally ill homeless man pushed 40-year-old Michelle Go pushed onto the subway tracks and killed her. At the time, six officers were assigned to patrol the station, including two on the platform she was on.
New York’s police have been criticized in the past by commuters for doing nothing more than being present when deployed on the city’s subway.
“Every time I ride the subway I see police officers, and overwhelmingly they're talking among themselves, acting as though they're on break, and just sort of passing the time,” Pearlstein said.
Despite a record number of police officers being deployed to the city’s subways—just under 10% of the entire department—even Mayor Adams has noted that subway crimes make up less than 2% of overall crime.
“The call for more police is not about solving the problem of how to actually make people in the subways or in communities safe,” Olderman said. “It’s about how to create the perception of safety. That is a solution to a political problem. It's not a solution to the true underlying issue that New Yorkers are grappling with.”
“Increased investment in affordable housing, the building of affordable housing, the deeper investment in quality health care and education, the creating of job programs for youth—that's not as visible as something like flooding the subways with more police,” she continued.
Adams’ idea to use more cops to crack down on crime isn’t new for the Big Apple. Last year, former Mayor Bill DeBlasio and former Police Commissioner Dermot Shea deployed an additional 750 officersto the subway throughout the year, making the city’s transit force the largest it’s been in a quarter of a decade, according to the mayor.
But making New York City safer doesn’t entirely fall on officers, according to Pearlstein.
“There’s a limited impact that policing can have when we’re asking these officers patrolling to get us the sun, the moon, and the stars,” Pearlstein said. “It's not fair to the officers to say, ‘Well, this kind of attack will never happen again if there are twice as many officers.’ That places unrealistic expectations on them.”
The cops tracked the subway shooting suspect, who has now been charged with terrorism, using a variety of evidence discarded at the scene: the handgun he allegedly used, a bag containing explosives, a credit card, and the keys to a U-Haul van. But they had some help too: A security camera technician Zack Tahhan spotted him near a bodega in Manhattan’s East Village and called 911.
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