No City Needs Subway Soldiers

New York’s deployment of the National Guard on public transit is ludicrous and dystopian.

This article was adapted from an item in the Current Affairs Biweekly News Briefing. Subscribe today!

New York Governor Kathy Hochul has dispatched the National Guard to patrol the New York City subway system and “conduct bag checks in the city’s busiest transit stations.” Adding to the 1,000 cops Mayor Eric Adams sent to patrol the subway stations last month, there are now around 750 fully outfitted soldiers in the New York City subways. After some high-profile violent crimes frightened passengers last month—including two commuters who were attacked with a hammer and a conductor who was hospitalized after having his neck slashed—Hochul sent in the troops to “[ensure] all New Yorkers feel safe on our subways.” (Indeed, what is more calming than having your belongings rifled through while being leered at by a man holding an M17?)

It’s certainly understandable that New Yorkers would be nervous to ride the subway after hearing about such attacks. But as we’ve seen again and again, terrifying anecdotes are often used to create the impression that New York has become a crime-ridden sewer reminiscent of Taxi Driver. Recently, Alex Skopic explained in Current Affairs that shoplifting paranoia has more to do with sensational media coverage than actual stats. That is also the case here. According to a New York Times analysis: 

Officials have spent millions to make [New York] transit riders feel safe. The investment is motivated more by passengers’ perception than by crime rates… Although surveys by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subway, show that a number of riders feel unsafe, data has not always confirmed the public’s perception. Crime rates jumped during the coronavirus pandemic starting in 2020, but the subway became safer last year.

In mid-2022, there was about one violent crime per one million rides on the subway, according to a New York Times analysis. Since then, the overall crime rate has fallen and ridership has increased, making the likelihood of being a victim of a violent crime even more remote. Last year, overall crime in the transit system fell nearly 3 percent compared with 2022 as the number of daily riders rose 14 percent.

Even Hochul admits that subway crime is “not statistically significant, but psychologically significant.” And while being surrounded by armed agents of the state may make some people feel more comfortable, that comfort probably has a lot to do with who you are and what you look like. When New York has given authorities the discretion to search people, aggressive racial profiling has followed.

We’ve been here before with New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, which was found to routinely discriminate against Black and Latino residents. Even though white residents were found to be in possession of weapons or other contraband at about the same rates as Black and Latino residents, the latter were stopped nine times as often at the height of stop-and-frisk in 2009. And though the practice was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 and has become less frequent, stop-and-frisk is still very much alive, and the racial disparity is still high. According to a 2020 review of police stops, 91 percent of people stopped by the NYPD were New Yorkers of color, and Black New Yorkers were stopped in 56 percent of cases despite being only 24 percent of the population.

Even though Hochul’s system is supposedly “random,” that also likely violates the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches (in the past, the Supreme Court has ruled against random traffic stops that lack “reasonable suspicion”). And most importantly, New York has flooded the subway with cops before, and it has not led to a drop in crime. As Sam McCann and Aaron Stagoff-Belfort of the Vera Institute of Justice wrote in 2022:

In 2020, 10 percent of New York City’s police force was patrolling the subway even though just 2 percent of crime occurred there. Pouring police into areas with relatively little crime leads to police over-enforcing what they encounter: trivial infractions like fare evasion, vendor licensing, or public sleeping. Adams ordered officers to prioritize making arrests for these so-called “quality of life” infractions and trumpeted a 51 percent increase in fare evasion arrests. That kind of “broken windows”-style policing fails to prevent acts of violence that jeopardize public safety. 

Recent history illustrates this failure. From December 2019 to the end of 2020, former New York governor Andrew Cuomo flooded the public transit system with police, instructing them to crack down on fare evasion and homelessness. Cuomo’s attempt to police his way out of the city’s housing crisis failed. Costs for police overtime soared 21 percent, and unhoused populations in the MTA’s busiest stations surged 45 percent last summer. NYPD practices on the subway sparked allegations of racism and an investigation by the state attorney general’s office. And the largest police presence on the MTA in a quarter century coincided with growing public safety concerns underground.

Throwing more cops at the problem is not just ineffective but costly and deprives the city of resources that would be more effective at addressing the root causes of crime. Yet the latest New York City budget did exactly the wrong thing: cuts were made to virtually everything in the budget except for the NYPD, including hospitals, social services, education, and homeless services.

Flooding the subway system with troops is an ineffectual, authoritarian solution that has more to do with making Hochul look tough and serious about crime than about actually solving it. And while this is a particularly over-the-top example of this trend, it’s hardly unique to Hochul. Whether it’s Governor Gavin Newsom’s aggressive crackdowns on the homeless, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s repression of left-wing protests, or President Biden’s replication of Trump’s draconian policies at the border, Democrats in positions of power all too often cave to fear narratives even when they are devoid of facts.

Note 3/20/24: The article was updated to quote Governor Hochul saying that the National Guard was dispatched in order to check bags. A previous version of the article stated that the Guardsmen were checking bags. The article was also updated to specify that Guard members were observing bag checks and that some of them carry M17 pistols, not assault rifles as previously stated.

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