Rational or Not, Crime Fears Threaten the Subway with a Death SpiralBreaking News
tags: crime, New York, urban history, mass transit, subway
Studies around the world have consistently shown fear of crime on transit systems outstripping reality, but you can’t reason people out of fear, and some of their fear is understandable. Part of that is the nature of the crimes—anyone who’s ever ridden the train in a major city can surely relate to the terrifying idea of being pushed in front of a train, no matter how unlikely—and part is media attention.
Terror about the subway is, as James noted, nothing new. During the 1980s, at the height of New York’s and the nation’s crime wave, subways were widely viewed as dangerous and seedy hellscapes. Reacting to perceptions of widespread crime, a band of vigilantes known as the Guardian Angels roamed the trains to keep peace. (The group’s founder, Curtis Sliwa, lost the mayoral election to Adams last fall.)
At the time, Dennis Kenney was a doctoral student at Rutgers, and he set out to study perceptions of crime and of the Guardian Angels by surveying riders. The subway system was disgusting, recalls Kenney, who is today a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He and his research team held a ceremonial disposal of their filthy shoes into the East River when they completed the project. But they found that it wasn’t very dangerous.
“The subway was full of graffiti, urine, and homeless people, but not crime,” he told me. Over the course of their research, canvassing the trains from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., they never witnessed a single incident. “It was kind of funny because at the time, the transit police told us they already knew that and nobody listened to them, and nobody would listen to us. They were right.”
Most of the crime recorded at the time was petty theft among children on the way to and from school. The poor perception of safety on the subway was mostly a response to media reports and to the sense that riders had that they seldom saw police. Yet although 12 percent of the city’s police patrols were in the subway, only 3 percent of serious crime in the city occurred there.
Impressions of subway safety improved in part when leaders including Bill Bratton, then chief of the transit police, focused on cleaning up the system—not metaphorically, but literally. They scrubbed graffiti off cars, mopped up urine, and tried to remove homeless people from benches. (Bratton later became commissioner of the city’s police force, and the transit police were absorbed into the NYPD.) Moreover, crime declined in the city overall, reaching historic lows. If you compare a graph of subway ridership with a graph of murders in New York, you see nearly a mirror image. The best way to make the trains seem safe is to make the city safe.
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