After the subway shooting last week, New York City mayor Eric Adams declared he will deploy more police to the subway. But that’s the last thing that will help
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”. The NYPD is the most heavily resourced police department in this country. And yet, as a demonstration of its priorities, many of its officers, upon demand of the mayor, spent countless hours last week engaged in high-profile sweeps arresting shelterless people, destroying their property, and in turn arresting those who showed up to protest their targeting of some of our society’s most vulnerable people.
Less than a week later, when given an opening to demonstrate their actual ability to keep New Yorkers safe from the threat of what officials for hours on end deemed an “active shooter” situation, the department failed, completely and utterly. “We”, by which Eric Adams meant his administration and the police department it directs, did not “get him”, by which Adams meant James. In the end, it was citizen tips, not helicopter scans or massive station sweeps or the fact that – at least to my eyes, walking around Manhattan on that terrible, bright and beautiful spring day – the city was spending even more on overtime for more police to position themselves in more places than it typically does on a typical day.
The police finally just blew up New Yorkers’ cellphones with screeching alerts Wednesday morning, with Frank James’s photo and information. This hardly seems like an instrument of “public safety” worth $10, let alone $10bn. And I shudder to think of what the NYPD deputizing all people in New York to be on the lookout for a 60-something Black man meant for the privacies and bodily integrities of the many thousands of men who live in the city and fit that description.
Meanwhile, we are left to marvel at the fact that the MTA assigns police officers to Brooklyn stations like Sunset Park relentlessly, and yet they, too, could do nothing to prevent Tuesday’s attack from happening. When we are told that police organizations like the MTA’s force exist to “keep us safe”, what are we to make of the fact that they quite clearly cannot or do not in moments of legitimate crisis, but that, as evidence suggests, they primarily engage in punishing low-income people of color for fare evasion?
American cities are in an arms race against themselves when it comes to their police departments. With reports of rising crime in a range of cities over the last two years, politicians in most corners of the political spectrum have argued, as Joe Biden
has, that we must “refund the police”, not defund them as community organizers have been demanding.
The premise stands against the evidence, against history. There is precisely no causal relationship between spending money on police and “public safety”. For generations, when “crime” has gone up, spending on police has gone up. When “crime” has gone down, spending on police has gone up. When “crime” has stagnated, spending on police has gone up.
This is an endless cycle of spending – costly not just in dollars but in lives lost to police violence, arrest, and incarceration – that stretches back longer than I’ve been alive, longer than most people reading this have been alive. For generations, New York and other cities have continued to throw money hand over fist, good over bad, to their police departments, in moments of crisis, as well as in moments of comparative calm. All this spending – which robs citizens of important social services, since police spending comes at the cost of public goods – is functionally unjustifiable. The amount of money we spend on police has no demonstrably measurable positive impact on “public safety”. Exactly none.
And yet we are expected to believe that propositions like that of Eric Adams – to double the number of transit police in New York City in the face of Tuesday’s incident – will magically change that pattern. When the city that spends more on its police than any other in this country not only cannot keep a person from shooting up a train station, but also cannot find him for more than a day and cannot do so without asking every living, breathing person with a cell phone to help them do so, we are asked to believe that the solution is to simply give more money over to the police.
I can think of few contexts in which Americans’ perceptions of something and the reality of that thing are more devastatingly, more expensively disjointed.