Opinion: New Yorkers deserve subway safety, not scare tactics and empty responses

To improve public safety on the subways, we need more services for mentally ill individuals, not more National Guard troops.

National Guard troops are deployed at a subway station.

National Guard troops are deployed at a subway station. Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu via Getty Images

Many of us have now seen the harrowing footage of the fight in a crowded car on the A train in Brooklyn that ended with one rider shooting another and leaving him critically wounded. This type of violence on a rush hour subway is every New Yorker’s worst nightmare. The MTA is the city’s lifeline, and we all deserve to be safe and to ride the subway in peace. High-profile incidents like this one understandably fuel fear. 

This scary and unnerving incident happened in my district in the heart of Downtown Brooklyn, and I know that we have to act urgently to assure New Yorkers that our subways are safe. The choices we make now will either help to make public transit safer or will simply perpetuate more security theater and empty responses. We already know that one knee-jerk reaction will be to deploy more law enforcement to patrol the subways and stations, on top of the thousands of members of the NYPD and National Guard who were already assigned to the MTA before last Thursday’s tragic shooting. This is not a serious or effective response. Many experts in law enforcement and social services, including a former NYPD deputy commissioner and a former Homeless Services deputy commissioner, have publicly spoken out against militarizing the subways. 

As a matter of politics, it sends the wrong message to New Yorkers, and, as a matter of policy, there is no evidence that the presence of the New York State National Guard conducting random bag checks improves safety for subway riders. But there are concrete solutions that will work to restore New Yorkers’ confidence that they can get to and from work, school and everywhere else safely. Here are solutions that we know will help:

Get help to people experiencing homelessness and mental illness on the subway. When New Yorkers encounter one of the many homeless people on the subways, they know what is needed most is access to stable housing and services. Trained civilian responders, often called community navigators, can provide that kind of behavioral health response. Exponentially expanding the existing subway community navigator programs, such as the Safe Options Support team, will help connect people who appear visibly homeless or experiencing mental illness to services. Setting up drop-in centers at major transit hubs (a transit-based replica of existing crisis respite centers) will allow people to voluntarily engage in medical and mental health care and get connected to housing and services. And dramatically expanding safe haven shelter capacity will successfully persuade more homeless people on the subways to enter specialized shelters with private rooms.

Add safety measures to subway stations and cars. Within a train car, where the inability to move easily out of harm’s way exacerbates a crisis, installing plexiglass barriers in the subway conductor car and posting clear reminders of how to activate the existing emergency call system will provide greater protection for MTA workers and more peace of mind to passengers. On subway platforms and in stations, we need to expand platform barriers, which are standard in other transit systems, across MTA stations. Additionally, simple fixes like LED lighting promote a sense of safety, and the MTA should accelerate its plan to update subway lighting.

Address the desperation and despair that drives crime and violence. We know that violence often stems from economic instability and social isolation, and we know that housing, education and employment and access to healthcare are all proven crime-fighting strategies. As altercations between transit employees and riders have increased in recent years, especially over fare disputes, one concrete measure that will minimize disruption and altercations on the subway is expanding low- and free-fare programs. Providing de-escalation training to subway employees will also make a meaningful difference.

These are all real and immediate solutions that demonstrate we are serious about safety and we know what works to prevent crime, respond to people in crisis and stop violence. But the size and scope of these solutions is dwarfed by the number of police and, in recent weeks, the National Guard in our subways. Increased police presence caused subway-related NYPD overtime to exponentially multiply from $4 million in 2022 to $155 million in 2023. Despite that investment, crime overall on the subway has remained relatively constant (declining 2.6% in 2023), while tickets and arrests for fare evasion have skyrocketed. 

There is a place for police on the subways, but it is not as social workers or mental health or medical professionals, since police officers do not have the requisite training to do this work. We need the NYPD to investigate and solve the crimes that affect the safety of New Yorkers. During the incident last Thursday, NYPD officers did exactly what they should have done: they responded swiftly and arrested the person in question. But the incident shows the limits of relying primarily on police as an answer. Police respond in the wake of a crisis, but even in a subway station co-located with the NYPD Transit District 30 Precinct headquarters, they cannot deter all crime or prevent harm before it occurs. After all, even with hundreds of National Guard members searching bags for weapons, and hundreds more NYPD officers patrolling the stations and subway cars, a man brought a gun onto the subway and a shooting took place.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, we must also resist more scare tactics. The fearmongering rhetoric by Mayor Eric Adams and other prominent elected leaders about crime and immigration has a direct connection to these recent incidents on the subway. In Jordan Neely’s death, a subway rider felt emboldened to pin him to the ground in response to perceiving Neely as “mentally ill” and “dangerous,” despite footage showing that Neely was only yelling in the subway car – and had not physically provoked or attacked anyone before the subway rider choked him to death. 

This most recent incident began with one rider yelling loudly, spewing anti-migrant hate rhetoric at another rider and his companion. That escalated into a physical fight where a knife and, ultimately, a gun led to the aggressor being first stabbed and then shot by two other two riders. These vigilante responses are fueled by inflammatory rhetoric from high-profile leaders, repeated in news outlets, and perpetuated by empty proposals such as deporting all migrants accused of a crime, banning New Yorkers from riding the subway if convicted of an assault on MTA property, deploying the National Guard to conduct bag checks on the subways – and, in the aftermath of last Thursday, calling for more involuntary hospitalization of people with mental illness

As elected leaders, our responsibility is to deliver real, evidence-based solutions that work to prevent violence before it happens, instead of merely fanning the flames of fear or engaging in the kinds of security theater and empty responses that fall short of what New Yorkers deserve. Let’s move beyond fear and do what it takes to keep New Yorkers safe.