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The one thing NYC shouldn’t rush to do after the subway attack? Increase police presence.

For many politicians like Mayor Eric Adams, the police have become synonymous with safety. But history tells a different story.
Image: NYPD investigate an incident on a train on April 12, 2022 in New York City.
Members of the NYPD investigate an incident on a train on April 12, 2022 in New York City. Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images

Last week, tragedy struck New York City in the form of a gun-wielding man opening fire on commuters on a subway car as it pulled into the 36th Street station in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. Within hours, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said he would double the number of transit officers patrolling the city’s subway system and announced a new interest in deploying gun-detecting technology that passengers would walk through to make their trains. 

The shooting comes on the heels of Adams breaking transit police records by deploying an extra 1,000 officers in January

The shooting comes on the heels of Adams breaking transit police records by deploying an extra 1,000 officers in January — which in turn came less than a year after former Mayor Bill De Blasio broke the previous record by overseeing around 3,250 transit police officers in the subway. Under Adams’ short time in office, arrests in the transit system have increased 64 percent since last year, and 350 of those arrests were for the misdemeanor of fare evasion, according to the New York Police Department. 

Since his campaign, and especially after taking office, Adams, a former NYPD officer, has vowed to exponentially ramp up the number of police on the subway system. “Omnipresence is the key,” he said in January. “People feel the system is not safe because they don’t see officers.” But what is omnipresence? When will it be reached? With an extra 1,000 officers recently deployed, which still has apparently not resulted in safety for commuters, how much more person power and money will it take? Or to put it another way: How big does the policing project have to become before we admit that it does not work as politicians think it does? When can we stop throwing good money after bad? 

According to the city’s website, the NYPD has around 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees and has a proposed budget of more than $10 billion, which makes it larger and better funded than many nation’s militaries. The city controls over 25,500 cameras — concentrated mostly in Black communities and other neighborhoods of color — and wields some of the most advanced surveillance technology in the world with little to no oversight from voters.

And yet, with every act of violence committed in the city, residents are being told to give more and more city resources to an all-consuming apparatus that, no matter how many times you double its budget, still has failed to yield safety for everyone. Worse than not always preventing violence, it is also a system that routinely creates harm in many, especially Black, New York communities. The NYPD spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year paying settlements for suits brought against officers. 

The problem is that police have come to be totally synonymous with safety for many politicians. For the most part, it is because more officers or surveillance seems to be the only solution politicians are able to offer when people are afraid. There have even been times when police have admitted new technologies don’t work or are not effective. And yet, billions continue to be funneled into police departments.

Amid public cries of “help!” only one response is offered. Decision-makers are unwilling or unable to break from the tradition of solving every problem by ramping up policing because of political interests, economic priorities, racial animus or, just as bad, because voters have been told for so long that policing is the only tool in the toolbox for addressing their fears. The first step is to admit that, when people ask for safety, what they envision isn’t more police, it’s safe walks and commutes, and there may be other ways of getting to that goal that we are not, as a society, investing in. 

Adams said in February, “I’m not going to do anything that’s going to get in the way of keeping New Yorkers safe,” but it’s important to ask: Does there ever come a time when siphoning money from other essential programs like housing, mental health and community intervention programs, to continue to pump endless funds into police departments become the thing that’s getting in the way of safety? When will we be allowed to put our eggs into more than one basket?