Albany Agenda

Hochul says subway crime ‘not statistically significant, but psychologically significant’

The governor's supporters say the specter of National Guard troops checking bags will make New Yorkers feel safer, but activists say it’s just a militarized version of stop-and-frisk.

New York State Police and the New York National Guard patrol and conduct container inspections at Grand Central Station on March 6, 2024.

New York State Police and the New York National Guard patrol and conduct container inspections at Grand Central Station on March 6, 2024. Adam Gray/Getty Images

Gov. Kathy Hochul wants to tackle the “psychology of crime” with her plan to flood the New York City subway with National Guard troops performing bag checks. But she’s facing intense criticism from both progressive lawmakers and civil rights groups who say that the governor’s interest in improving the safety vibes on public transit doesn't justify a heavy-handed approach that could infringe on New Yorkers’ rights.

Speaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Thursday morning, Hochul acknowledged that statistically, crime is down both generally in the city and specifically on the subway. But she said that’s not what informed her decision to send in 750 National Guard troops. “We have seen a number of crimes, and again, not statistically significant, but psychologically significant,” Hochul told host Joe Scarbarough, adding that numbers don’t provide comfort if you’re feeling scared. “If you feel better walking past someone in a uniform to make sure that someone doesn't bring a knife or a gun on the subway, then that's exactly why I did it,” Hochul said.

Overall crime on the subway went down in 2023 by 2.6% compared to 2022, although felony assaults increased by 2.5%. Those numbers included a sharp increase in assaults in the system, and the most recent data from police shows this year has started with a spike in subway crime. But as Hell Gate pointed out yesterday, major felonies have steadily decreased from its peak more than two decades ago. Even with some recent increases and year-over-year spikes, the numbers still remain near historical lows and the city is nowhere near the “bad old days.” But that’s not what the governor is focused on. “I'm not going to talk about statistics,” Hochul said bluntly on Fox 5’s Good Day New York. “I'm going to talk about feelings and emotions and the psychology of a city.” 

Hochul’s logic hasn’t sat well with civil rights activists, who say that Hochul’s desire to improve straphangers’ feelings of safety will only harm New Yorkers. 

Janai Nelson, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the governor’s plan “mistakes a heavily armed military and police presence for safety,” and emboldens law enforcement to engage in bag checks that are “eerily reminiscent of the Stop-and-Frisk tactics in New York that have been ruled unconstitutional and deeply harmed Black and Brown New Yorkers for decades.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called Hochul’s approach “whiplash inducing” considering the crime statistics that the governor has chosen to ignore. “The city only recently trumpeted safety data,” Lieberman said. “Sound policy making will not come from overreacting to incidents that, while horrible and tragic, should not be misrepresented as a crime wave and certainly don’t call for a reversion to failed broken windows policies of the past.”

Progressive lawmakers at the city and state levels also reacted poorly to Hochul’s attempts at improving subway psychology. “There is zero evidence that conducting subway bag checks advances public safety,” New York City Council Member Lincoln Restler wrote on X. State Sen. Julia Salazar warned that increased bag checks will only inconvenience riders at a time when the state is trying to get more riders using public transit. “We want *more* people taking public transit, which has public safety benefits, not policies to hold up commuters and spread fear,” she wrote on X. Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest simply shared a graph that showed far more Black New Yorkers were stopped by police in 2023 than any other race, along with the caption “nuff said.”

Assembly Member Latrice Walker, a leading voice in the state Legislature on criminal justice issues, said in a statement that while she shares Hochul’s desire to improve public safety on the subways, deploying the National Guard to perform bag checks isn’t the way to do it. She said it “raises concerns about a veiled return to the stop-and-frisk era during which Black and brown people were disproportionately targeted.”

Of course, not everyone viewed Hochul’s plan unfavorably. New York City Council Member Robert Holden, a conservative Democrat, praised the governor. “If we can't secure our subways, we lose control of our streets,” Holden wrote on X. “This was long overdue and crucial for our safety.” In a statement, the head of the city’s largest police union also had kind words for Hochul. “The Governor is prioritizing safety in the subways and recognizing that there is no substitute for a strong police presence,” said Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Hendry. However, he added Hochul’s action “isn’t a permanent fix.”

During her MSNBC appearance, Hochul highlighted the political optics of her decision to flood the subways with National Guard troops. “I'm also going to demonstrate that Democrats fight crime as well,” she said, criticizing Republicans for “hijack(ing) the story that we’re soft on crime.” But the move hasn’t changed the Republican narrative. “If your public safety program has failed so spectacularly in your own estimation that you need to send in the troops, it's time to try something else,” said Republican state Sen. Jake Ashby, comparing her plan to the political comedy series Veep. Even he warned about how the decision amounts to “stop and frisk on military grade steroids.” A new opinion piece from conservative New York Post columnist Bob McManus called Hochul’s move a “political stunt” that failed to address real problems regarding subway crime.

It’s not the first time that Hochul has decided to base public policy on perception. When fighting to roll back bail reform last year, the governor specifically cited “horrific cases splashed on the front pages of newspapers” that “shock the conscience.” Hochul similarly received criticism at the time for relying on vibes compared to data when enacting criminal justice policy.