On October 22, Governor Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced “major actions to keep subways safe and address transit crime.” Those actions included surging police presence on platforms and subways (which has been done as recently as last year), dedicated units at psychiatric centers for the unhoused population from the street and subways, and training for police on how to “best engage” unhoused people on the subway.
This press conference and release has all the markings of an altruistic approach to what has become a housing crisis and a mental health crisis wrapped into one within New York City. But is the NYPD a valid answer to this issue?
Even the New York City Transit President Richard Davey said in October that more police officers at stations are not making much of a difference, with the New York Post reporting that officers were at a Jackson Heights station at the same time when a rider was killed in a fight and at the Far Rockaway station when a teenager was shot and killed on a train.
While the city keeps promising services like those mentioned in Hochul and Adams’ press conference, they have yet to really follow through on pilot programs that currently exist to try and protect New Yorkers going through crises, like B-HEARD, a pilot program to route emergency calls to mental health workers and non-police responders. The program was only available in a small part of New York City in 2022 – covering just 11 out of 77 precincts, mainly in the Bronx and Harlem.
B-HEARD had some success this fiscal year, with a report finding that the response times for teams in this program averaged 16 minutes, which is on par for how quickly paramedics are able to respond to mental health calls. However, the report also outlined a troubling statistic: only 22% of calls to EMS for mental health emergencies were actually routed to B-HEARD teams. The rest were given to the NYPD or other EMS staff that were available.
This is troublesome considering that, according to a report from amNY, 23.4% of arrests made for crimes that fall in the “7-major” crime categories – murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, grand larceny, burglary and grand larceny auto – are allegedly committed by someone with a history of mental illness.
Instances where the NYPD is intervening in an altercation or trying to speak with someone going through a crisis on the subway can lead to unnecessary arrests, hospitalizations, and sometimes in serious injury or death if officers decide to use fatal force. In the past year alone, police nationwide have shot and killed 1,071 people. Between 2021 and this year, 35 people were shot and killed by police in New York state.
And that number does not even account for people murdered by police using other forms of lethal force such as choking or tazing.
On the subway specifically, officers are being asked to essentially do a job they have never really done before – prevent crime before it happens. But the crimes that straphangers might be concerned with the most – riders being pushed onto subway tracks, robberies, or random attacks – are not crimes that can really be prevented or predicted by anyone, including police officers.
And the major crimes that officers aim to “prevent” are not the crimes driving up arrests right now. The MTA’s CEO Janno Lieber said in October that arrests have doubled as more officers flood stations, but most of these arrests are for fare evasion coupled with a surge in “quality of life” summonses.
A 2020 study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research found that while adding more police officers to major cities on average reduced both major crime from happening and led to less arrests for those crimes, it led to even more arrests of Black and brown community members for petty crimes.
While the impact of this huge influx of officers is yet to be seen, and as conductors are still getting used to having to mention to riders that officers are available to them at certain stops, it will be important to hold Hochul, Adams and other city officials accountable for their promises related to both aiding those in need on subways using law enforcement while ensuring they are not continuing to abuse their power to arrest Black and brown subway riders at a higher rate than white commuters.
B-HEARD is just one program that could help to measure how much they do or do not improve on their response to mental health crises in New York City and could be an effective tool in addressing the city’s mental health crisis, an issue where Adams has already fallen short.
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