Home News Hochul’s wrong subway call-up: Troops are not needed underground

Hochul’s wrong subway call-up: Troops are not needed underground

Last week, in response to the ridership’s fear of crime, Gov. Hochul announced the state will deploy 750 National Guard soldiers and 250 state troopers and MTA officers to the subways. This amounts to sending four Army rifle companies and an extra police precinct’s worth of troopers into the transit system.

But to do what exactly? They will help conduct bag searches in a few stations, a mismatch for a problem that doesn’t start or end with the things people carry, but centers on basic concerns about public order, quality of life, and social cooperation in the subways.

It is a precarious choice of personnel. While National Guard soldiers are citizens who can be deployed to war in a matter of months — as they were in the aftermath of 9/11 — they are hardly police officers. I have served in both roles, and the difference is stark.

Soldiers have none of the training and skills necessary to handle the myriad crimes and crises that spring up in the subways and require police. That is why, at present, riders only see them at hubs like Grand Central and Penn Station. Surrounded by actual police officers, they are typically on hand to be the first responders to a terror attack. Their role is to do battle with the type of gunmen who killed dozens of commuters such as in the 2008 attack on Victoria Terminus, Mumbai’s version of Grand Central, using assault rifles and grenades.

That attack startled the NYPD for its simplicity, brutality and body count. Among my 19 years in the NYPD, three were spent as an intelligence officer. I deployed to Mumbai to investigate the attack, retracing the steps of terrorists, talking to police, and reviewing video footage.

Back in New York, we realized we needed military-grade firepower both as a deterrent and a response to such a threat, and we knew New York City was perpetually in terrorists’ crosshairs. This is one of the reasons that even as the National Guard scaled back its presence in New York City after 9/11, it continued to deploy to transportation hubs.

But short of dystopian martial law, we did not think for a moment that the infantry could help us deter pickpockets, mentally ill assailants, farebeaters and the other everyday criminals and people in crisis who degrade safety and quality of life on the city’s subways.

An effective response to crime underground isn’t much different than one on the surface. The perpetrators are from the same population, they are policed by the same NYPD, and they are sent through the same criminal court system. If they need social services, they need to be linked to the same resources available above ground.

The subway isn’t some sort of bizarro world where the regular ways of fighting crime and addressing behavioral health problems don’t work, and safety instead requires soldiers. If anything, the omnipresent cameras and witnesses in the subway make crimes even more solvable than they are on the surface.

So if crime is up in the subways — and while major felonies remain low overall compared to recent history, violence is by some measures, with some especially terrifying crimes splashed across headlines — the city’s first look should be inward, to determine why the systems that worked so well for so long are now leaving people feeling less safe.

Some point a finger at criminal justice reforms that arguably make it easier for recidivists to cycle through the system no matter how many times they disrupt the subway. The city should identify this population, the judicial system should make it clear that an infraction on the subway is a more serious matter than one out on the street, and act within the bounds of the law to acknowledge this.

The gap may be in the form of basic, everyday policework, investigation and prosecution, combined with a growing body of alternatives when behavioral health problems lie at the root of problematic behavior underground. Throwing more bodies from other agencies at tangential things like random bag checks won’t fix that.

In that regard, the city has enough resources to do the job. Officials often claim to need more bodies, but apart from the force in New Delhi — and with all its disanalogies — the NYPD is the largest municipal police department in the world. The agency’s Transit Bureau has about 2,500 officers on its own, which would make it the 10th largest police department in the United States were it not a part of the NYPD and its 35,000 officers.

It is entirely capable of effectively policing the subways by itself, and has done a remarkable job of it over the years: Subway crime actually remains near historic lows, and the number of felonies reported in the system has been basically stable for the past two decades.

It is true that there has been a recent jump in some important categories. There have been more murders in recent years. Though very small in number, these are among the most fear-inducing crimes for riders. Assaults last year hit a 27-year high, and that’s a genuinely serious problem.

But overall violent crime remains low, and the NYPD that beat back a truly historic subway crime epidemic in the mid-1990s is the same NYPD we have today, except it now has better technology and more investigative tools. Were it not for the present rhetoric of doom, getting back to a basic combination of well-focused policing supplemented by well-resourced social work would seem like a recipe for success.

What a military deployment has done, however, is hand the city and state’s political detractors an unforced error that they will use against it for years to come. It is hard to argue that the subway system hasn’t become an intractable war zone when government executives are acting as though it will literally take the Army to get it under control.

The trope that New York City must be a blue-state liberal hellhole is patently untrue, as tens of millions of tourists who visit every year (and who ride the subways, too) see with their own eyes: Nearly every mouthpiece that utters it writes from a jurisdiction with a much higher violent crime rate that would triumphantly brag about its success if it were somehow as safe as New York or its subways. But when the governor herself is sending the infantry into the transit system and the mayor is pleased to receive them, it becomes nearly impossible to deny their hysterical claims.

And what does the city get in exchange for giving this away? If the earliest videos are an indication, not too much. So far, they are mainly scenes of soldiers and troopers standing at subway entrances with combat rifles while police officers check bags.

It is very doubtful that troopers and soldiers will actually ride the trains. They’d need special radios, training in the layout of the subway system, and knowledge of the NYPD’s procedures, lest they get lost or have to tell riders they aren’t authorized to handle the basic situations the NYPD responds to every day.

Liability will probably therefore require that they never be more than a stone’s throw from an NYPD or MTA police officer, significantly reducing their role as a force multiplier.

In the end, it may all just be a battle of dueling impressions. While crime in the subway has gone up in certain categories, the idea that there is a monumental crime wave in transit is simply an illusion, however persuasively it has been conveyed by tabloids and opportunists. In response, an extra 1,000 uniformed bodies rotating their way through some stations may provide the counter-illusion that everything is actually under control.

Where a government deploys its soldiers will always be politics by other means, whether their objective is to topple a foreign regime, or in this case, retake the Pelham One Two Three.

Del Pozo is a policing, public health and criminal justice researcher. He served in the NYPD for 19 years and for four years as chief of police of Burlington, Vt. This originally appeared in Vital City.


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