New York subway crime: What is perception, what is real, and how to fix it


The New York subway system is one of the world’s largest, oldest and most complicated with 472 stations and 665 miles of track. But crime and fear has become a real issue for the system.

Riders who were driven away by the pandemic are returning to the system, but perhaps more slowly because of headlines about stabbings, robberies and people being shoved in front of trains by strangers.

Understanding transit crime is different from street crime. It’s not a single neighborhood you can flood with cops, or a particular ring of criminals who can be targeted and rounded up. New York’s transit system defies regular community policing tactics because it is not a community but is the sprawling and constantly moving system which binds all of New York’s communities together.

New York Mayor Eric Adams recently pushed back on fears the subways have become more dangerous by saying the problem is more one of “perception” than a statistical increase in crime.

Is crime up this year in the transit system significantly?

Yes, it is, if you compare the numbers to last year, crime in the transit system is up by more than 40%. The thing driving the numbers is larceny, which usually means someone’s phone or wallet was stolen from their bag or off a seat, sometimes it’s when people doze off. So nonviolent crime is up more than violent crime, but it is the violent crimes we are seeing in the news stories which are a shock to the senses of many riders.

So what about violent crime?

What police are seeing are small numbers, but they have significant impact on the system and the psyche of its riders. There have been three murders so far this month; too many in too short a time to not ask a serious question about safety. Those three murders make it nine so far for 2022. During the same period last year, the number of murders was six. Robberies are also up by about 34%, Felony Assault is up by about 17%. If you compare those to last year when there were still a million fewer riders.

It sounds like crime is out of control then, doesn’t it?

So, this is where it gets complicated, but it’s actually worth understanding. It does seem like crime is up dramatically unless you zoom out. If you take the “seven majors” which are the standard for measuring crime, murder, rape, robbery, felonious assault, burglary, grand larceny what you see is all these crimes were slightly higher in 2019 before the pandemic. Right now, crime is actually lower than it was in 2018 or 2019 by 4%.

What other factors do you have to consider to figure this out?

Ridership. Think of the transit system as its own city. In 2019, the New York subways would have had a population of about 5.5 million people (riders). If a “place” with a population greater than Los Angeles only had six serious crimes a day, it would be fantastic. Having 10 or 12 murders for the year would make it by far the safest big city in the nation. But let’s get back to transit. We have less crime than we had pre-pandemic, but we also have lower ridership. But even with ridership rising to an average of 3.8 million in recent weeks, the chances of being a crime victim remain very low, about one in 600,000.

So why are so many riders frightened?

A couple of reasons. First, if they read the tabloids they would have to be. These are examples of the headlines for October: “Spike in Transit Crime,” “Governor’s Race Spotlight Finds Transit Safety Issue,” “Terrified New Yorkers Turn to Vespas and Citi Bikes,” “As Subway Horrors Continue, Adams Must Push Hochul to Act” and then, of course, there are the stories of the crime of the day. But understanding riders’ fear goes beyond the violent crime that gets more attention because it’s happening on the subways. Those stories are in people’s consciousness sure, but then they go into the subway and in the course of a day or a week, they see the homeless guy sprawled out on the bench, they see the mentally ill person screaming or acting out, the kids smoking weed, they see the man urinating on the corner of the platform of worse, in the train. All of this, though not violent crime, gives riders a sense of disorder and fear. They just feel like things don’t seem to be quite under control down there and even if they’ve never been a victim of a serious crime in the system, seeing all that, it makes them edgy.

So, where is the enforcement?

Interesting question. The NYPD makes literally thousands of arrests in the transit system each year and issues thousands more summonses. This year, so far, police have made 6,793 arrests in the transit system. Last year at this time it was 4,622. Arrests are up 47%, but that’s for crimes. When you look at the other violations – the “quality of life” conditions – the ones that make people feel unsafe in the system, those summonses are up over 200%. It would be hard to argue in a general sense police are not engaged in enforcement.

If arrests and summonses have increased by that much over the last two years, why has crime increased in the same two years?

Even before bail reform and criminal justice reform laws changed how cops could enforce laws in the subways, district attorneys stopped prosecuting many of these violations and crimes. Perhaps the most significant among those crimes was turnstile jumping. Transit cops have an old saying: “He who controls the gate, controls the system.” What they mean is most of the people behind serious disorder in the system don’t pay to get in. Ticketing, and in some cases, arresting people for jumping the turnstile used to be a key controller of reducing overall crime in the system. It used to be by the third time a person was caught jumping the turnstile, instead of just another ticket, they could be arrested. The district attorneys are not writing those charges up. Smoking weed on the trains or platforms (or even cigarettes) is still a violation. The public urination and the other things are all just a ticket now and the violators often just toss them. Even for misdemeanor criminal offenses there’s a reluctance by prosecutors to charge them and by judges to do anything other than to dismiss them. Many criminals and violators have come pretty confident there will be little or no consequence beyond a moment’s inconvenience.

So if the cops are spinning their wheels, why do they bother?

Frankly, they ask themselves that a lot but their chief, Jason Wilcox, and their supervisors are pushing them to engage. They are encouraging the officers to write the summons, even if the result is uncertain. Only by engaging after a violation can an officer get their ID and find out if the person you are talking to has a warrant for a serious violent crime on the system or the street. Sometimes, just the act of engaging someone who is committing a violation leads to them stopping it. An arrest is where an officer may find they are carrying a knife or a gun. Sometimes it just tells the person the cops will engage where they see a violation. The riding public and the violator both need to see on a daily basis the cops are still in the game down there, even if the laws are weaker and the district attorneys decline to charge. Otherwise, the perception is, the police are just giving up.