"More Cops" is Not the Answer for NYCRoundup
tags: racism, crime, New York City, Police, urban history
Simon Balto is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Last week, as I sat at a desk in a hotel room in lower Manhattan where I was traveling for work, my phone buzzed. A friend who knew I was in New York had texted to ask if I was all right. Bewildered, I sent a question mark back in response, and turned to Twitter for real-time answers as to what was going on. And there was the news: a man had opened fire inside a subway car as it pulled into a station in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, shooting what we’d eventually learn to be 10 people, and injuring more than a dozen others either with bullet grazes or smoke inhalation from smoke grenades he’d thrown. (Mercifully, no one was killed, and reports are that no one still hospitalized has life-threatening injuries.)
In the aftermath, the shooter vanished as if a ghost.
The New York police department (NYPD) – the largest police department in the US and one of the biggest in the world – commenced a manhunt for the shooter. Later in the day, they identified first as a “person of interest” and then as their suspect 62-year-old Frank R James, who had allegedly driven from Milwaukee to Philadelphia in recent months, and then from Philadelphia to New York, where he carried out the shooting. Twenty-nine hours after the morning rush hour attack, police arrested James in Manhattan’s East Village after people in the area (perhaps as well, apparently, as James himself) called in tips to say that he’d been spotted at a local McDonald’s. “We got him,” New York mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD officer, said after the arrest. “We got him.”
Adams’ grim victory lap on Wednesday after James’s arrest was not his first statement about the subway shooting. On Tuesday afternoon – as a municipal police department with 36,000 officers and a $10.4bn budget struggled to locate a sexagenarian with a bad back (according to James’s sister) after he had shot up a train car at a subway station that maintains a constant police presence in order to surveil and punish people for trying to evade the $2.75 fare – Adams furiously pledged to double the number of police officers employed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
The MTA governs New York’s public transit system, and employs about 3,500 police officers. In 2019, using numbers that are now a few years old and thus almost assuredly low, the Citizens Budget Committee calculated that the cost of each newly hired MTA police officer would be about $93,000 in their first year (salary plus benefits), and more than $200,000 by their 10th year of employment. In one fell swoop, in other words, Adams promised to increase annual spending on policing New York’s subways by about $300m a year – a figure that will eventually grow to more than $700m annually. This is to say nothing about the many hundreds of millions New York already annually spends on MTA police or the $10.4bn it dedicates to its municipal police.
The cognitive dissonance is deafening. The entire, terrifying episode that unfolded across 29 hours in New York was a testament to the futility of spending more money on police, and to the lie that police “keep us safe”.
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