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What’s the Best Way to Reduce Crime on Transit Systems?

Ridership on trains and buses has plunged, yet crime is on the rise. Transit advocates say now is the time to change how to handle fare evaders and illegal behavior. But will the riding population feel safer?

Two BART ambassadors greet a passenger on the Bay Area's subway. These officers are still employed by the BART police force, but they have responsibility for enforcing quality-of-life crimes like fare evasion.
(Maria J. Avila/BART)
The New York City’s mayoral race featured little discussion of transit or transportation, except when the subject intersected with crime and safety.

“The more we see that omnipresence [of police officers], we’re going to decrease the anxiety, increase the trust — then you can reevaluate where you are,” said Eric Adams, the presumed victor, a month before the election. A former transit police officer himself, he suggested inundating the system with hundreds of additional officers.

Many big city public transit systems saw increased fears of crime and disorder during the pandemic, as ridership plummeted, and official oversight diminished as the ranks of police and transportation workers were reduced by quarantine and illness.

These very real concerns also intersected with an increasing concern about an overreliance on police in many aspects of American life, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Armed officers are expected to enforce laws regarding homelessness or fare evasion, which critics say put citizens in harm’s way and overburden the police force. Instead, progressive advocates have promoted the idea of shifting resources to other arms of the state while refocusing police resources on more violent crime. (Other groups have, famously, gone further and promoted defunding or abolishing the police.)

“In light of last year's protests, many agencies began to rethink their relationship with policing on the system,” said Chris Van Eyken, senior program associate at TransitCenter, an advocacy group. “But they tried to balance the need to maintain a secure environment, because if you're not keeping riders safe, they're not going to come back, especially after COVID. There's a fear that riders are going to be hesitant, so you need the system to be safe.”

Van Eyken and his colleagues at TransitCenter have compiled a report called “Safety For All,” which argues that police are necessary to keep violent crime in check, but that other strategies are required as well. In particular, they argue that both undocumented immigrants and Black Americans disproportionately suffer when armed officers are tasked with enforcing quality-of-life laws about eating on transit, taking up multiple seats or skipping the fare.

The report states that there are alternative ways to enhance safety on mass transit while minimizing the risk of escalatory interactions between armed law enforcement and civilians. Van Eyken points to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authority, where police violence entered the spotlight after the killing of Oscar Grant in 2009 on an elevated train platform.

The system has since increased levels of nonpolice oversight, hiring elevator attendants to maintain sanitation and safety in those spaces. An “ambassador” program was created as a first response unit without firearms, although they do carry pepper spray and police radios (as well as Narcan to prevent overdoses). These officers are still employed by the BART police force, but they have responsibility for enforcing quality-of-life crimes like fare evasion.

“It allows for less intensive policing,” says Van Eyken. “BART will also point out that they're more resource effective, meaning that they have lower salaries. You can deploy more people to ensure that riders are paying the fare while using your police officers more strategically.”

Police Backup Still Needed

For Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, unarmed civilians are not enough to combat the current surge in crime, although they can be part of the solution with close police supervision. She notes that in Paris or London, if you skip the fare, enforcement is left to civilian patrols that check tickets and can hand out fines that must be paid on the spot.

“But if you try to run away from the person checking the ticket in Paris, the gendarmes are not far away, and they will chase you down,” says Gelinas, who is releasing a report on crime in the New York transit system on the same day as TransitCenter’s “Safety For All.”

“There's nothing wrong with trying experiments with civilian fare-beating enforcement,” says Gelinas. “But you can’t do that and not have a police backup. Then there'd be no incentive for people to not just run away.”

Crime on the New York City subway system is less than half what it was in the early 1980s and even further below the early 1990s peak, but it is still at its highest levels in three decades. In that context, Gelinas believes that more police presence is needed, and not just to intervene in the most extreme cases.

Gelinas says that police should also be aggressively intercepting fare beaters, a strategy that she attributes to part of the pre-COVID decline in violence in the subway system. She distinguishes this from the much-maligned stop-and-frisk campaigns, because the police would be targeting people who have already committed a crime. She points to a recent double murder on the subway as an example of how fare enforcement could reduce violent crime too.

“That person almost certainly did not pay to get into the subway, if he was apprehended and his knife was taken off of him and you could have saved two lives,” says Gelinas. “We can arrest people after they have committed a violent crime, but the whole point of what we were doing for 30 years was to prevent violent crime.”

But other transit advocates fear that such enforcement will be disproportionately meted out against lower-income users, and especially Black riders, the overwhelming majority of whom would not be involved in more serious crimes. Such interactions with law enforcement can often escalate, so minimizing such interactions with armed officers should be paramount. (The TransitCenter study cites data from 2019 that shows 61 percent of use-of-force incidents affected Black people even though they only represent 10 percent of the system’s ridership.)

In many transit systems, punishment for fare evasions is similar in severity to robbery or assault, not a traffic ticket or some other more equivalent crimes for drivers. TransitCenter highlights the work of TriMet — which serves Portland, Ore. — and reduced penalties against fare evaders to allow them to avoid entanglement in the criminal justice system. The new system of penalties instituted in 2018 allowed those busted for evading fares the option of joining the lower-income ridership program (if eligible) or completing community service instead of paying a fine. TriMet also increased the use of unarmed security personnel to do fare checks.

Looking ahead, Gelinas says that the only way to reduce crime to the levels of the previous 30 years is to get more people on transit systems again. More than police presence, or other kinds of state intervention, there is safety in crowds. As ridership spiked to modern highs in the 21st century, crime plummeted.

But she feels the way to get riders back on transit is to make them feel safe. As TransitCenter’s study states, “One of the most significant barriers is the perception that transit is unsafe.” The difference is that Van Eyken and his colleagues think there are more diverse ways to make people feel protected on transit than increasing numbers of armed officers, whereas Gelinas and her colleagues at the Manhattan Institute think that's the best way back.

“At some point, yes, this could just fix itself,” says Gelinas, “once we get back up to 100 percent ridership. But that could be years away. Are we just going to let felony crime stay at such an elevated level until then?”

Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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