Brooklyn Subway Shooting Adds Fuel to Police Debate

With no fatalities resulting from the mass shooting that took place in the New York City subway on Tuesday, and a suspected arrested after a more than 24-hour manhunt, it might seem that this particular incident is drawing to a close—but the impact it has on the city could be long-lasting.

This latest episode of violence has re-sparked an ongoing debate on the effectiveness of current law-enforcement approaches in preventing crime, particularly within New York City’s subway transportation system.

While authorities were still looking for the suspect, Mayor Eric Adams said that he would double up the number of transit officers who patrol the city’s subway stations, at least in the short term. The announcement didn’t come as a surprise to criminal-justice experts, as Adams has made his position on policing very clear during his early tenure as the city’s mayor. The mayor, a former police officer himself, campaigned on a law-and-order platform—including promises to increase law-enforcement presence on the subway system—and has said he is open to increasing the department’s budget.

New York leaders have made it a top priority to assure New Yorkers the safety of the subway. Ridership hasn’t recovered from pre-pandemic levels, and there has been an increase in crime. The New York City Police Department reported that felony assaults in the subway rose by 25% between 2019 and 2021. TimesIt was reported that the number of people using the subway system had fallen in recent years. When Adams and Kathy Hochul, the Governor of New York, proposed a controversial plan that would prevent people who are homeless from staying in the subway, the authorities relied heavily upon the officers stationed within the mass-transit system. “As announced in early January, New Yorkers will continue to see an increased presence of NYPD officers in subway cars and on platforms, especially at high priority stations. More than 1,000 additional officers have already been deployed across the system,” the plan’s prospectus declared.

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It’s unclear whether there were police officers present at the station when the shooting happened on Tuesday. But, given the general ubiquity of officers in the system, some New Yorkers and others questioned what the event—and the day it took to apprehend the suspect—said about their effectiveness.

Experts are also asking the same questions.

“There will be an increase of police presence in the subways, but not necessarily for a long term. This will be a typical reactive reaction to a major incident,” predicts Maria Haberfeld, a criminal-justice professor at John Jay College. “No matter how many officers you are going to deploy there is never enough to cover all the stations and trains.”

Right now, police officers in the New York City subway stations primarily focus on “deterrent patrol,” a term that refers to preventing crime in a specific target area. This involves the arrest of minor offenses like jumping over turnstiles.

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One Brooklyn-based community police officer, who was granted anonymity for fear of reprisals at work, tells TIME that many officers prefer not to work in the train stations because they feel it’s a waste of time to arrest people for those minor crimes.

“We know how that looks to the public; it just creates more unnecessary tension,” the officer says.

Though some experts do believe that there is a benefit to having police officers in train stations—and a survey conducted last year by the MTA, the agency that runs the subways, found that most people who rode the subway felt safer seeing uniformed cops there—it may not be a concrete solution to addressing public safety.

“[The] physical presence of police officers will deter some criminal actors, but the ones who are determined to commit crimes will still find the way,” Haberfeld says. “However, from a perspective of optics and deterrence, albeit limited, it is important to have more officers.

And with more officers set to head underground, many of the city’s criminal-justice advocates are particularly concerned that the policy change may have a disproportionate effect on people of color and marginalized communities.

“Any time we see an act of violence that draws this much attention, we often see a doubling down in security culture. We’re addicted to that as a country. It makes us feel calm for the moment,” says Scott Roberts, the director of criminal justice campaigns at Color of Change, a civil-rights advocacy group. “What’s frightening is we know the ramifications are going to impact the communities that are already over-policed.”

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Since crime is on the rise in New York City as well as across the nation, activists and community leaders are calling for increased attention to root causes, including education and housing.

Roberts points out that law enforcement measures are often what politicians and city leaders turn to after a major gun violence incident like this. However, Roberts says that to have any real impact on crime these measures must be combined with socioeconomic factors.

“I think there’s leadership [in the country] that has the right ideas, but those ideas are pretty marginalized,” Roberts says. “I hope that leaders across the country who think they need to double up on security culture take a close look at what the issues are.”

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