New York governor Kathy Hochul speaks during a news conference after a shooting at a subway station in the Brooklyn borough of New York City April, 2022 (CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters).

In early March, in response to a 45 percent spike in major crimes on the subway at the beginning of the year, New York governor Kathy Hochul deployed 750 members of the National Guard, as well as 250 state and Metropolitan Transit Authority police, to help the New York City Police Department patrol 472 stations across the city’s subway system. 

Hochul’s initiative, which also includes a bill to ban people convicted of subway crimes from using the system for up to three years, was immediately criticized. Some argued that the measure was a repeat of the NYPD’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program, which had subjected the city’s residents—and a disproportionate number of people of color—to random searches. 

Others pointed out that crime on the subway, which accounts for only a small percentage of crime in the city, had actually declined in February compared to the previous year, despite a few recent high-profile cases and a one-month spike in January. Hochul acknowledged as much, stating on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that the recent spate of subway crimes was “not statistically significant, but psychologically significant.” 

In politics, of course, perception is reality, and elected officials have a responsibility to address the public perception of danger even when it diverges from the statistical evidence. If people don’t feel safe on mass transit, they won’t use it. But Hochul’s measure is unlikely to address either the perception of risk or the underlying reality. The presence of National Guardsman on platforms, coupled with the thousand additional police officers New York mayor Eric Adams has already deployed to stations this year, will only heighten public concern about the risks of traveling on the subway—why would they be there if it wasn’t dangerous?—while doing little to prevent actual crimes, as a recent shooting on a northbound A train demonstrated. 

That these “tough-on-crime” measures usually fail either to win over skeptical voters or to prevent real crimes is hardly surprising.

More importantly, Hochul’s measure will also funnel money away from essential state and city programs that offer shelter for the homeless and treatment for people suffering from mental illness—programs that would go a long way toward addressing the problems that have made the subway more unpleasant and nerve-wracking, if not more dangerous. 

Unfortunately, the New York governor is hardly alone in her approach. Voters in San Francisco recently approved two ballot measures championed by Democratic mayor London Breed to expand police surveillance and impose drug screenings for people receiving welfare benefits, while the Democratic governor of New Mexico is threatening a special legislative session to pass additional anti-crime measures. Violent crime is down in both places, just as it is in most of the rest of the country

For years, Republicans have used public anxiety about crime against Democrats, and Democratic leaders have all too often responded by trying to appear tougher than their Republican critics, throwing their support behind conspicuously punitive policies. That these “tough-on-crime” measures usually fail either to win over skeptical voters or to prevent real crimes is hardly surprising. 

In the run-up to an election, politicians of both parties will continue to gin up panic over public safety, focusing on lurid headlines and anecdotes instead of the more complicated and less alarming statistics. It would be better, though less politically expedient, to identify and address the causes of the kinds of crime that are increasing (shoplifting and carjacking, for example). One of the main causes of crime is, and always has been, poverty. Medicaid expansion, affordable housing, a higher minimum wage, guaranteed income—the options are there if the state and city are willing to make the necessary investments. Or politicians could just continue talking tough, and hope that their political opponents won’t talk even tougher. 

Miles Doyle is Commonweal’s special projects editor.

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Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents
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