A few hours after a man shot up a subway car full of people in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City Mayor Eric Adams was on television, pledging to double the number of police officers on subways.
This fast-twitch reaction was both completely senseless and so predictable as to verge on inevitable. As New Yorkers who actually take the subway know, stations and trains are already absolutely crawling with police. Adams has, from the beginning of his term, made the aggressive policing of subways a centerpiece of his administration. Within a month of taking office, he had already flooded 1,000 additional officers belowground.
None of it seemed to make a difference on Tuesday morning in Sunset Park. As I write this, on the evening of the shooting, there’s a great deal we still don’t know about what happened. Some of the things we do know, however, are pointing to questions about just how more police would have affected events on the ground at all.
We know that the army of police swarming New York’s subways didn’t prevent the attack, in which 10 people were shot. We know that, for the meantime at least, the suspect was able to escape — leading to a dispute about why trains at the station were not quickly frozen in place. We know from reporting that the contribution of a police officer on the scene was to ask other people on the platform to call the incident in to 911, because he couldn’t get his radio to work. (Police later clarified the problem was not with the radio but with the user.) We know from witness accounts on public radio and in the press that the scores of police officers who arrived at Fourth Avenue were seen mostly milling about, effusing what one reporter described as an “oddly light” mood: “The cops looked relaxed.”
In a society more open to letting evidence guide policy and less invested — financially, culturally, psychically — in police as a civic cure-all, the reaction to Tuesday’s tragic events might have unfolded differently, with greater circumspection. Instead, New Yorkers and the country got to watch in real time, as a story about a tragedy that the police were powerless to prevent was speedily reframed as a story about the need for even more police.
What’s playing out in New York following the subway attack adheres to a recognizable script: A tragedy is metabolized into an excuse to expand the machinery of the security state.
Adams has consistently elided the line between public safety and the public’s perception of safety. “Omnipresence is the key,” the mayor said in January, announcing the further police-ification of the subways. “People feel the system is not safe because they don’t see officers. We’re going to bring a visual presence to our systems.” He promised police would be focused on serious crime, not “petty issues that will cause negative encounters.”
The subway attack adheres to a recognizable script: A tragedy is metabolized into an excuse to expand the machinery of the security state.
The surge and the “visual presence” of police didn’t prevent a rash of disparate violent incidents in the transit system early this year. There were two cops on the train platform when a man, whose schizophrenia had cycled him through a life of short-term hospitalization and incarceration, pushed Michelle Alyssa Go to her death a week after Adams began his surge. Their presence, visual and actual, didn’t stop it from happening.
Having promised in January that his police surge wouldn’t have any “unnecessary engagement” with homeless people, Adams switched it up in February, directing police to have maximal unnecessary engagement with them. “The vast majority of the unhoused and the mentally ill are not dangerous,” Adams conceded, while nevertheless sending police into the subways to find the New Yorkers sheltering there and throw them off of trains and out of stations during one of the coldest months of the year. (A real estate tycoon told the New York Times he loved Adams’s approach.) In the weeks that followed, there continued to be incidents of violence on the subways, very little of it attributable to homeless people.
So now there are 3,500 police — more police than most police departments have on the entire force — all over the New York’s subways. They are rousting people with nowhere else to go. They are harassing churro ladies. They are coming down hard on crimes of poverty, like fare evasion, with prolific summonses and arrests, contributing to New Yorkers’ sense of safety and well-being with scenes like this one. Meanwhile, aboveground, the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, founded ostensibly as an elite anti-terrorism unit, is taking a break from the application of violence against New Yorkers engaged in protest to focus on the destruction of the shelters and property of people living in tents.
Altogether, New York’s profligate spending in excess of $10 billion a year on the NYPD — more than all but a handful of the world’s national military budgets — remains largely untethered to oscillations in serious crime. And the police remain laser-focused on the punishment of poverty.
On Tuesday, local and national news outlets worked themselves into a froth, devising new and improbable security-theater responses to the day’s tragedy: Would the mayor consider installing metal detectors in the subways? The attention left Adams, sidelined and confined to the mayor’s mansion with a Covid-19 infection, under enormous pressure to be seen doing something.
Adams is boxed in by the very logic that brought him here. In the midst of a media-accelerated panic over crime rates rising somewhat from the historic lows of a couple years ago, he won office promising that he was the only candidate who could reduce crime. Crime rates, though, are wildly multifactorial phenomena, and the ability of a mayor to bend their trajectory with policing policy is limited.
Now the mayor is reaping the whirlwind: The media remains deeply committed to a narrative of a city spiraling into crime and disorder, but now it’s Adams’s city, and his police-focused approach to crime isn’t delivering the results he said it would. Doubling the police headcount in the subways might not prevent the next tragedy, but it looks tough on crime — and if it doesn’t prevent further crime, he can always quadruple it.