NYC’s Rider Alliance has a vision for a better, safer subway with less policing

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For years, New York City’s famous subway system has been caught in the crosshairs of a contentious public debate over crime — but in recent months it has entered a new frontier. In March, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul deployed 750 National Guard members to conduct random bag searches at Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA, stations. Later that month, the NYPD announced a surge of 800 additional officers to crack down on fare evasion.

These surges follow broader increases in policing on public transit in New York City over the past decade, which accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed to hire 500 more officers on MTA’s payroll, even as the city’s outgoing police chief argued that serious subway crimes had gone down. In 2022, Gov. Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced a massive surge in subway patrols that led to “a $151 million increase in NYPD overtime pay, a negligible decrease in crime and a vast increase in fare evasion tickets and arrests of people of color.” 

A string of highly-publicized crimes on the subways has also created political pressure to increase police presence there — especially when passengers have taken matters into their own hands. In May 2023, for example, an ex-Marine fatally strangled an unhoused Black man named Jordan Neely who was experiencing a mental health crisis in their shared subway car. This past March, a subway passenger carrying a gun was disarmed during a dispute and critically wounded with his own weapon.

While state and local politicians have often committed to policing as the solution for transit crime, many grassroots organizations have critiqued these policy choices. Community organizations engaged in police reform, anti-poverty work and transit advocacy have offered a different understanding of how and why crimes occur on the subways they use every day. A key challenger in the current public safety debate is New York City’s Riders Alliance, a grassroots group made up of MTA passengers and community organizers pushing a rider-driven vision for transit funding and service.

In 2023, the alliance released a “Riders Plan for Public Safety,” which contained a number of policy recommendations for safer subways — like decreasing wait times, reducing riders’ contact with police officers and investing in affordable housing. As police investments continue to grow, alliance members have consistently argued that holistic community investments can reduce the burden on police officers who are unequipped to deal with riders’ most pressing issues. According to policy and communications Director Danny Pearlstein, “New Yorkers know deploying troops to subway entrances is a scare tactic that does nothing to keep millions of us safe underground.”

I recently spoke with Pearlstein to learn more about transit riders’ role in this debate. We discussed the recent history of New York City transit policing, how the alliance is organizing riders for new community investments, and how they’re pushing back against regressive narratives about public safety in the city and state.

Give me some background on the Riders Alliance and how you started working on community safety.

We’ve been around about a dozen years, and we were founded to organize riders to hold elected officials accountable for better public transit — not just for its own sake, but for a more just and equitable city. There had been significant cuts to public transit in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and there was no organized base of riders to stop it. We were organized gradually with neighborhood-based campaigns and then citywide campaigns. In 2019, we were part of a broad and deep coalition that passed congestion pricing in the state legislature to fund a plan to fix the subway. (It has not happened yet, but we anticipate it later this year.) Throughout this, really starting in earnest before the pandemic, we’ve engaged in a discussion over transit safety. 

In 2019, there was a spate of misdemeanor assaults on transit workers — and sporadic, but also more serious assaults on bus drivers. As a result, there was a huge successful push to spend a lot more money out of the transit budget on police before the pandemic. We thought that was terrible public policy. The conversation should not be, “Is the subway safe?” Because that leads to (the) use of subway riders and transit workers to score political points — that’s deeply irresponsible. Instead, the conversation should be about, “How do we make the subway safer? How do we prevent violence on the subway?” 

We don’t think the transit budget should be spent on policing, but we recognize that there are tens of thousands of police officers in New York City and thousands of them are deployed to the subway. The subway is a core public space, so it’s not surprising that it’s policed. But there’s a lot of big questions about how it’s policed and whether that’s working out — and also, if the subway is less safe than other public spaces. Why is the subway different? Could it be that the subway has been singled out as an unsafe space by politicians and tabloids and the TV news for ulterior motives besides subway safety?

There’s 4 million riders on the subway every day, tens of thousands of transit workers showing up to work, and there are a small but disturbing number of safety problems in the subway, including shootings. There have been more murders in the subway since the pandemic than for a long time before it, and that is totally unacceptable. Everyone should be safe, welcome and included in the subway — and there’s a very broad and deeply divisive public debate about how we get where we should be and why we’re where we are.

In the past couple years, there’s been a highly publicized increase in funding for subway patrols. More recently, you’ve had the introduction of the National Guard doing bag checks. Why are these particular changes happening right now? 

There’s a couple different ways of getting at that. If the concern is about the safety of riders and workers on the platforms and trains, it’s particularly poor style and substance to deploy troops to the turnstiles or to militarize station entrances. 

A Riders Alliance action. (Twitter/Riders Alliance)

There occasionally are people stopped at the turnstiles who have a gun on them. But that’s a tiny portion of people being stopped at the turnstile, so it’s “needle in a haystack” policing. It also buys into this logic that you can catch criminals who will otherwise commit violence by stopping them from bringing weapons into the system, when very few people carry bags into the system to commit crime. Even with 800 additional officers, the system has thousands of entrances and the officers work in groups and in shifts — so you can’t actually control most of the entrances with a dramatic expansion of policing. 

If you look at the policy advocates who are very focused on fare enforcement, it’s consistent with their policy agenda of having a much larger police force and also having much harsher laws. It’s hard not to ask the question, “What do they expect to happen?” If these people get their way and there is no more bail for lots of people, maybe they’ll be spending some time on Rikers Island, which is a miserable and chaotic place. But Rikers Island can be a death sentence. So are people implying that some people should die awaiting trial over $2.90, in New York City, in 2024? Is that what anyone wants — the immense cost in human life and government resources that would involve? That just seems like a terrible idea.

How did the Riders Alliance develop your organizational vision for safe public transit?

The first things we started to hear about safety back in 2019 were, “Oh, the system is rife with fare evasion and homelessness.” Obviously policing isn’t the answer to homelessness — homes are. And with fare evasion, it’s extreme depending on how it’s prosecuted — it could lead to people being removed from the country over the nonpayment of $2.90. So is that the path that we wanna go down when our fare evasion rates are similar to everywhere else? We know that collecting fares costs money, and collecting every last fare costs the most money. You could end up spending a ton of money on fare enforcement and you could ruin people’s lives over a tiny amount of money.

So the core of our transit plan was fixing the problems of transit affordability with expanding the fair fares program, and improving the quality of public transit with more frequent service — to bring more people into the system and more eyes on the system. And we accomplished that. We now have more frequent service on the subway than we had before the pandemic — that’s because of our successful campaign last year. 

But beyond that, we have to have a conversation about what the police are doing in the subway. We work closely with civil rights groups and police reform groups to figure that out, because no one thinks the police are going to leave the subway, and that’s not really what people are asking for. But I think they’re asking them not to be revenue officers, and not to be looking at their phones. If, as the mayor says, the police are gonna be omnipresent, then they need to be walking around and looking to stop violence on the platforms and trains — that’s what riders seem to be asking for, that’s certainly what transit workers are asking for. 

What are some reliable strategies that the alliance has used for riders to intervene in public safety debates?

For a long time, we would get calls from local press about this crime or that crime — and for a long time, we would ignore all of them. We started to answer more of them and engage more in the debates. I think that helped get the fair fares program and the frequency of subway service expanded. I think the next frontier is thinking more about, “How are the root causes addressed on the state level with housing and healthcare?” and “How does the MTA itself engage a little bit more?”

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I think there’s the sense that maybe there’s something the MTA could do to draw people in. There has to be some new model for figuring out how to do that that involves peer support, that is not threatening like an interaction with police can be (and certainly the National Guard). There’s a discussion around the idea of a municipal Department of Care that could help people who are otherwise falling through the cracks. It requires additional investment — and that shouldn’t come out of other transit services. But if the MTA is the platform, literally and figuratively, on which these problems are happening, then the MTA needs to be equipped to address them. 

Have you been able to engage with other community organizations in New York during your current campaigns?

We’ve had an opportunity to work with a lot of progressive organizations in the city, (and) we’ve worked pretty effectively with them. The people at Communities United for Police Reform, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Coalition for the Homeless are the big partners we’ve had. We were part of a letter with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (in March). And the Community Service Society is our lead partner on the campaign to win and then to expand fair fares — that’s an anti-poverty organization that’s been around since the 19th century. They work across a very wide variety of spaces. We zero in on what’s going on with transit.

When policy choices and funding choices have been heavily skewed toward policing, who’s best positioned to shift them?

It’s the governor, without a doubt. She’s been really strong on public transit: She has steadfastly stood by transit funding, which has been great — and I think she sees that correctly as a way to improve her credibility in downstate New York, where the majority of the population is. 

I think, though, that she’s bought into a lot of the conventional notions around policing and safety and that’s how we ended up with the National Guard — even though most people think that’s a bad idea. I think it was well-intentioned on her part, but I think it was in some ways tone-deaf. She’s tried to cover various bases and say, “It’s not just cops, it’s also care.” I think we really need to see the care. The cops are visible. We need the care to be front and center, and we’re not there yet.