The alleged suspect in a subway shooting that left ten people shot on Tuesday became the focus of a manhunt that ended 30 hours later thanks to a security camera installer on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Zack Tahhan, a 21-year old Syrian immigrant, spotted the suspect, whose description and photo had been shared for hours through television and social media, and alerted nearby cops, who were apparently unaware of the most sought after man in America walking down a crowded street in broad daylight.
The suspect, Frank James, a 62-year old Wisconsin man, wasn’t exactly a criminal mastermind: after reportedly leaving his credit card and keys to his rented U-Haul truck (registered under his name and paid for by the credit card also under his name) in the subway after he allegedly shot 10 people at random, he neither hid or fled the city. Instead, he was found on a crowded Manhattan street near a McDonalds reportedly asking people where he could charge his phone.
James, who on his (since deleted) YouTube channel referred to himself as having mental health issues, was practically begging to be caught.
To fully grasp what may turn out to be a devastating case of police ineptitude, we should unpack the events of the manhunt as well as the larger debate around public safety that the media, the mayor and police have for months tried to leverage into tough on crime policies.
After Tuesday morning’s shooting at the 36th street station in Brooklyn, transit officials said that the three cameras (out of apparently 10,000 system-wide) in that particular station weren’t working. This apparently stymied the police investigation. But remember, James had left plenty of clues and so it didn’t take long before police released a name and photo of him, first as a “person of interest” and then as a suspect. But where to find him? According to reports on social media, the timestamps on his metrocard indicated that James had continued riding the subway system as recently yesterday morning – a full 24 hours hours after the most notable subway shooting in decades with police on the so-called hunt.
Despite the City’s impressive network of cameras (New York City is one of the most surveilled cities in the world outside of China) and orwellian NYPD Domain Awareness System, James continued to elude authorities, That is, until Tahhan saw him on the street. As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, James even called 1-800-CrimeStoppers on himself, giving up his location.
That didn’t stop NYPD commissioner Keechant Sewell from congratulating her own detectives in a tweet with James’ photo stamped APPREHENDED. “The work of our detectives is second to none and the dedication of our patrol officers is never ending,” she tweeted. No mention of Tahhan, any complications in the manhunt or how a 62-year old possibly mentally disturbed man eluded police for so long.
Mayor Eric Adams matched her chest-thumping with a tweet that simply read “My fellow New Yorkers – we got him,” reminiscent of the statements made after the United States killed Osama Bin Laden. A visibly upset Adams later appeared on a live interview on Spectrum NY1 News (whose anchors spent the afternoon similarly giving credit to law enforcement to law enforcement) where he railed against Black Lives Matter “protesters” and Twitter for, according to him, not being vocal about violence in Black communities (paraphrasing a common “what about Black on Black crime” right-wing trope).
Adams, we should all remember, ran a pretty straight forward get-tough-on-crime campaign for mayor. And he has not disappointed on that front. Before the recent (and ongoing) controversial and contested sweeps of homeless encampments –part of a Rudy Giuliani throwback approach to public safety we wrote about recently – Adams had already ordered 1,000 more police officers into the subway system. The extra police presence, many on social media have noted, did not prevent James’ pretty rather unsophisticated plans to basically hurt people with guns and smoke bombs.
As reporters and pundits have ad nauseum tried to analyze how safe people “feel” on the subways, the reality is that neither Adams’ surge of cops into the transit system nor a multi-agency manhunt were able to stop or capture a dedicated shooter. Instead, what police had accomplished were more arrests and summonses for so-called “quality of life” offenses like fareb eating and taking up more than one seat on the subway – hallmarks of the racist Broken Windows theory of policing.
The cynicism around the NYPD’s actions in regards to the subway shooting may offer a glimpse into a new trend in how the public sees policing. In the past, police have only received credit for crime trends, but never criticism. During years when crime trended down, police were lavished with praise by mayors and political pundits. And when crime went up, like now, we were told how what was needed was more policing.
It should be noted that while James’ alleged actions (they are, after all, at this point still allegations) – which potentially were motivated by his desire to prove that police could not stop random acts of violence, a point he made in his Youtube videos – differ from the intra-community violence that’s most common in urban cities, the prevailing analysis from mainstream media seeks to lump it all together as part of a wave of violence to incite further moral panic and more policing. However, as violence has notably increased as a result of a once-in-hundred year pandemic that destabilized society in ways we have not fully understood, some may begin to question how wise it is to depend on police to contain it.
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