Banning serial harassers from the subway is misguided

An empty subway car.
An empty subway car.

Banning serial harassers from the subway is misguided

There are more practical ways of stopping subway predation.
July 29, 2019

Women are the majority of public transportation riders in New York City, but there is not necessarily safety in those numbers.

In 2018, 866 sex crimes were reported on the subway, resulting in 373 arrests, according to the NYPD. And in a survey by the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, 75 percent of women’s responses indicated an experience with harassment (such as groping, exposure or assault) or theft on public transportation. 

New York is not unique in having subway gropers; nearly every city in the world with a crowded subway car is seeking solutions to the same problem. Women in Cairo, Delhi, Dubai, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and on German regional trains board female-only (usually pink) train cars. Subway riders in Tokyo are downloading an anti-groping app at 10,000 downloads per month. In New York, City Councilman Chaim M. Deutsch has proposed banning serial gropers from the New York City subway system (and possibly buses as well) for life.

Deutsch’s intentions are noble, and a short-term ban may be sensible. But his proposal to ban these perpetrators from using public transit for life is both infeasible and misguided – and it overlooks more attainable steps to eradicating transit harassment. 

When this plan is drawn out to its logical conclusion, it is clearly a non-starter. First, keeping any individual away from the 472 subway stations and their 1,928 entrances would require thousands of police scanning crowds against mugshots 24 hours per day, sure to waste time better used in more active peacekeeping functions. If the ban were also to apply to the city’s 5,710 buses, their drivers would be forced to scan all boarding faces, acting as public transportation bouncers, clearly outside of drivers’ scope of work. Alternatively, the MTA could employ facial recognition systems, but they are notoriously buggy, especially flawed at distinguishing people of color. Neither police nor artificial intelligence can or should bear the load of restricting subway access.

While nobody wants a serial harasser on board, limiting their access could lead to unintended consequences. Some repeat offenders are likely battling financial challenges, mental illness, other problems or a combination thereof. Restricting their transit access would mean they cannot travel to work, endangering their ability to obtain treatment or earn an income. In a worst-case scenario, that might contribute to a downward spiral that leads to more and intensified violent actions. 

But riders still need stronger protections from harassment. Instead of attempting to ban harassers from using public transit, several common sense intermediary steps should be taken to stem sexual harassment and assault on the subway.

First, subway station environments are harsh for many types of users, particularly those most vulnerable to harassment or violence. Subway workers who were formerly employed as token booth clerks or elevator attendants should be retrained to conduct safety patrols on platforms. The recent increase of female plainclothes officers on crowded trains should be continued. The presence of subway officials on platforms and trains, complementing patrols of Transit Police and placement of obvious CCTV cameras, will likely help to deter crime. 

Subway workers on platforms would also provide a response to complaints. The NYU Rudin Center’s survey found that 88 percent of women who had been harassed on public transportation did not report the incident to authorities. To combat the lack of reporting, the transit police need to both simplify the mechanism for reporting and show that it is worthwhile.

Simplifying the reporting mechanism includes making police or other safety attendees available in train stations. In addition, emergency apps, with geolocation functions, can start recording video while summoning emergency services. Other passengers can (and often do) assist in threatening situations: A new app released by Tokyo’s rail system allows users to press a button that makes the phone announce loudly, “Stop it,” and flashes a message reading, “There is a molester. Please help,” which they can show other riders. Lest New Yorkers feel they are alone in subway groping, this app has been downloaded 237,000 times. 

As helpful as fellow passengers may be, victims of groping must be shown that reporting crimes is worthwhile. Several recent reportsshowed that when sex crimes are reported, they are often mishandled by the NYPD, who under-investigate. Furthermore, a recent report from Scripps found that the NYPD under-reported rapes by 38 percent between 2014 and 2018, indicating a lack of focus on the issue. Holding police more accountable to handling harassment and assault cases with seriousness, urgency and sensitivity will help the public to trust that reporting crimes will lead to prompt investigation, apprehension and prosecution of perpetrators.

Beyond the NYPD’s control, the impact of arrests is limited: subway groping typically falls under “forcible touching” Misdemeanor A charges, landing perpetrators with little to no time in jail. Even repeat offenders (12 of the NYPD Transit Bureau’s 99 sex crime-related arrests in the first half of this year), are charged with a Class E felony, which carries no jail time. By imposing harsher penalties, the city and transit system would send a signal that unwanted touching will not be taken lightly, and the felony conviction would be far more enforceable than a rider ban.

Of course, none of these steps gets to the root of the issue: people must be taught, starting at a young age, to keep their hands to themselves. Sexual harassers are found in most venues, and the subway is an easy entry point to crowds. Truly ending harassment starts with education.

These untapped mitigating steps are more likely to limit unwanted touching than a subway rider lifetime ban. Of course, no subway rider wishes to be jammed into a subway car next to a serial groper. But before we sign on to a flawed solution, we must improve what we can: education, supervision, reporting, and action.

As dozens of cities weigh their options for mitigating subway harassment, let New York light the way in smart policy, and let our women unite in our safety in numbers.

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Sarah M. Kaufman
is associate director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation.