Has New York broken its three-year-old subway curse, under which violent felonies have soared even as nonviolent thefts stayed low? Not yet.
New police data show the city is trying — but running up to the limits of what it can do without changes to state law.
NYPD Transit Chief Michael Kemper did a little well-deserved bragging last week: “Crime is down” on the subways, he said. “This is real progress.”
Yes. As of March 5, the subways have suffered 336 felonies this year. That’s 22% below the same period in 2022.
More important, it’s 41% below the level in the same period in 2020, meaning we’re kind of, sort of, finally inching back to normal.
But wait, you may say — COVID didn’t wreak havoc in New York until mid-March 2020, bringing both ridership and subway enforcement to near-nil.
So why do we need to be well below the early-2020 rate to get back to pre-COVID normal?
Actually, crime started soaring in New York before COVID, as Albany District Attorney David Soares attempted to remind lawmakers last month.
“Crime had already started rising” — 20% in New York City — “by the time the coronavirus hit,” Soares wrote, “ending a 27-year stretch.”
That was particularly true on subways. In 2020, the 572 felonies through March 5 were 39% above the 2019 figure.
Just as important was the changing mix of felonies: more violent crime.
In January and February 2020, violent felonies — mostly robbery and assault — were 59% above the 2019 level.
Why? Because law enforcement plummeted — yes, again, before COVID — as a result of bail and other reforms.
In January and February 2020, transit arrests fell by 25% compared with the previous year.
And people who were arrested went free, like the man who repeatedly robbed Manhattan tourists near MetroCard machines.
Civil summonses were up 6%. But replacing criminal law enforcement with civil tickets meant more repeat criminals were throwing the civil tickets away unpaid, with fewer escalating repercussions.
COVID made this worse because police enforcement fell further and ridership disappeared.
Arrests fell for the full year from 10,528 in 2019 to 3,959 in 2020; by 2022, they were only back up to 8,984.
In 2019, the subways had 917 violent felonies — a rate per million rides of 0.54.
In 2020, the subways had 928 violent felonies — but with a fraction of ridership, a rate of 1.5 violent felonies per million rides.
In 2021, the subways had 1,006 — 1.3 violent felonies per million rides.
Thanks to the police surge Gov. Kathy Hochul announced in November and December, we finally saw modest progress — 1,183 violent felonies last year but, with higher ridership, a rate of 1.2 violent felonies per million rides.
OK, it’s a new year, and we’ve had 1,200 extra police on subway shifts all of 2023 so far. So where are we?
Violent felonies are down significantly from last year: murders, rape, robbery and assaults down 20%.
That’s a per-capita violent-crime rate finally below one per million — about 0.95 per million.
So we’re much better than we were during the same period last year, when violent crimes were at 1.5 per million rides.
What changed? Ridership went up 27% — but ridership had been rising steadily since late 2020 and didn’t result in public safety.
More mental-health and homeless outreach? Mayor Eric Adams and Hochul started doing that in early 2022, which is good — but didn’t get crime-reduction results.
No, what changed was law enforcement.
Year to date, arrests in transit are up 61%. Civil summonses, mostly for fare evasion, are up 84%.
Arrests and civil summonses have both doubled since the lows of the pandemic years.
Civil summonses are 50% above what they were in 2019, and arrests are about even.
That’s all good — but the per-capita violent-crime rate is still nearly twice that of 2019.
We have to be clear-eyed about what this means: A police department depending on unsustainable overtime can deter crime by its presence — and by making arrests that interrupt bad behavior for hours or days.
But they can’t keep it up forever. And unless state legislators fix criminal-justice reforms to deter repeat bad actors, crime won’t return to 2019 levels.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.
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