Subway Policing is Still Racist. Wasn’t Tish James Supposed to Investigate That?

Black and Latino New Yorkers account for 88 percent of all fare evasion arrests, and 70 percent of summonses.

Subway Policing is Still Racist. Wasn’t Tish James Supposed to Investigate That?
Two NYPD officers in a subway station (Hell Gate)

In January of 2020, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that she was investigating the NYPD’s methods of enforcing subway crime. In a press release, James acknowledged that New Yorkers were rightfully outraged by videos of cops arresting churro vendors and pointing guns at a teenager, and expressed concern that Black and Latino people made up 70 percent of all fare evasion arrests.

“If groups of New Yorkers have been unfairly targeted because of the color of their skin, my office will not hesitate to take legal action,” James said.

More than two years later, the NYPD is once again ramping up enforcement of low-level offenses on the transit system, spurred by eyebrow-raising claims from the MTA that fare evasion is costing the agency $500 million, and that riders are still too reluctant to return to the system because of crime.

As of May 1, fare evasion arrests are up 77 percent from last year, from 300 to 532, according to NYPD figures, and up 38 percent from their 2020 levels. Fare evasion summonses have risen 51 percent from 2020—25,461 fare evasion summonses issued so far this year.

Demographically, nothing has changed. Black and Latino New Yorkers account for 88 percent of all arrests for fare evasions and 70 percent of fare evasion summonses, according to the most recently reported stats. In March, a video of a violent farebeating arrest of a teenager spurred yet another public debate about policing in the transit system.

“What we're seeing happening now with this increase is what we have talked about all along, which is that this sort of Broken Windows policing, a discredited form of policing, is racist in practice,” said Anthony Posada, supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s community justice unit. “It disproportionately targets Black and brown communities. These statistics speak for themselves.”

James has not released an update on the 27-month-old inquiry. A spokesperson told Hell Gate on Thursday that “the investigation is ongoing.”

In this latest round of subway crime crackdown, the MTA’s chair and CEO Janno Lieber has taken pains to emphasize that he’s “not interested in criminalizing” children or the poor and has announced a “blue ribbon panel” to ensure that things like better turnstiles and city’s woefully underutilized Fair Fares program are part of the solution.

Lieber has also started cultivating a sense of anger towards farebeaters. The MTA recently promoted a video of a well-heeled-looking woman holding a cup of coffee and ducking the turnstile. He told Brian Lehrer that too many riders feel like “suckers” for paying the fare.

The MTA did not provide a methodology for how it arrived at the $500 million number and referred questions about the racial disparities of subway policing to the NYPD and the AG’s office.

While Lieber’s special panel debates the merits of education or technological fixes—additions that will likely cost billions of dollars and may not ever happen—there are, right now, more cops (3,500) in the subway system than ever before.

“You're training some of the most highly trained police officers in the world, who basically spend their time looking for fare evaders. And that's just not appropriate,” David Jones, an MTA board member and CEO of the Community Service Society, told Hell Gate.

Jones’s group is a big reason why the NYPD has to release some demographic information on transit policing in the first place, but he said that the most specific data—who is being arrested or ticketed at which subway station for what crime—is still far too hard to come by. Jones noted that less data has been available than when he first joined the board a few years ago.

Lieber appointed Jones to his blue ribbon panel, along with Schools Chancellor David Banks, policy experts, and former law enforcement officials. Jones insisted he was hopeful the group will come up with some decent ideas, and pose some pointed questions to the police department: “Why are you selectively enforcing in some of the poorest neighborhoods, neighborhoods of color?”

Maybe James, who is still part of a package of lawsuits against the NYPD for their policing of the 2020 protests, really is in the midst of a meaningful investigation of racist transit policing, and the MTA and the NYPD are foolish to be escalating enforcement with these disparities. Or maybe they’re betting that, more than two years later, they can do as they please.