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Hochul’s Militarization of NYC Subway Is About Politics, Not Public Safety

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s decision to flood the subway with national guard troops is a costly form of political theater.

National Guard members are on duty at a security checkpoint at Penn Station in New York City, New York, on March 7, 2024.

On March 14, a coalition of community and civil rights organizations issued a letter to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul opposing her decision to flood the New York City subway system with 1,000 state police and National Guard troops. Hochul’s decision to militarize the policing of the subways comes after some high-profile incidents of serious violence, but serious crime in the subway is lower relative to the pre-pandemic era. Overall, serious crime in the subway system is down almost 50 percent over the last 25 years and the subways remain safer than city streets, with only 2 percent of all crime occurring there.

Governor Hochul announced on March 6 that she would immediately deploy state police and National Guard troops to conduct checks of bags at randomly chosen subway entrances. After initial resistance, she agreed that the National Guard troops would not be armed with assault rifles as they are in several of the city’s transit hubs.

The bag check process was developed after 9/11 to try to dissuade potential bombings of the subway. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) challenged the constitutionality of the searches, but the courts found they were permissible as long as the searches could be refused (resulting in denial of entrance to the subway) and that they could only search large compartments of bags for the purposes of discovering explosives. The new searches are presumably designed to search for weapons, which according to NYCLU Legal Director Chris Dunn, would be a violation of the court agreement.

Because these searches are voluntary, their alleged deterrent effect is minimal. There is nothing, in practice, preventing someone from merely walking to the next subway station to evade a search. The new militarization of the process does nothing to change this essential weakness.

The March 14 letter from organizations opposing the initiative points out that it will likely exacerbate existing racial inequities in police enforcement action, since the influx of new forces will free up NYPD officers to engage in more intensive and invasive policing of the subway system, which has always resulted in primarily low-level arrests and summons directed overwhelmingly at people of color, unhoused people and people with mental health needs.

According to Jin Hee Lee of the Legal Defense Fund, “The deployment of military personnel and state police in New York City subways is reminiscent of the city’s failed ‘stop-and-frisk’ era that threatened the safety of Black and Brown New Yorkers and their right to be free of unwarranted intrusions. To achieve real safety, we need proven methods like community investments that will promote the health and economic well-being of residents, instead of surveillance and harassment from law enforcement and military personnel.”

In addition, this initiative does nothing to expand the availability of mental health services, supportive housing or resources for youth, all of which are needed to actually address social conditions which then play out in the subway. Housing Works Vice President Anthony Feliciano points out that “This strategy not only funnels more resources into an already overfunded police force but also blatantly ignores the proven efficacy of alternative solutions like housing and mental health services.” Even riders’ organizations like the Riders Alliance note that this initiative will not produce real safety and that, “Riders want to see major new public investment to address the root causes of the widespread problems uniquely visible on the subway, starting with housing, healthcare and basic support services.”

Tragically, even after the subway was flooded with more NYPD officers, state police and National Guard troops, a shooting still took place on March 14 as a train entered a station that houses an NYPD Transit Precinct. The Manhattan DA’s office reports that it appears to have been an act of self-defense — the victim was allegedly shot with his own gun, which he had been using to menace a migrant on the train in a xenophobic assault.

If the governor’s interventions are unlikely to produce a safer subway system, divert resources and attention from much needed services, and are likely to exacerbate racial inequities, then why is she doing them?

A clue lies in a recent report on a conversation between Nancy Pelosi and Republican New York Congressman Mike Lawler. During the State of the Union, which Hochul attended, Pelosi told Lawler that he should be thanking the New York governor for getting him into office because of a poor performance by Hochul during the 2022 election in which he first won office. Pelosi has stated that Hochul contributed to a poor Democratic showing across the state because she failed to lean into the crime issue sufficiently.

It is clear that Hochul is listening to Pelosi’s advice and is playing up a tough-on-crime approach as a strategy to take back congressional seats that the GOP won two years ago. She has jumped on the pro-law enforcement bandwagon even though governors typically play a minimal role in policing, which is generally controlled by local government. Her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, made a similar play at law enforcement theater as part of his ongoing dispute with then-Mayor Bill de Blasio. Starting around 2015, Cuomo steadily increased the number of state police operating in the city as a way of flexing his muscles over a variety of disputes with de Blasio over local versus state control. By 2020, law enforcement officers on both sides were expressing frustration with the policy, which served no law enforcement purpose and was extremely expensive to maintain.

In essence, Hochul is attempting to engage in more law enforcement theater in order to win over more conservative voters outside of New York City. Most of the districts being contested fall outside the city limits but within the greater New York media market, meaning that coverage of both crime and Hochul’s response will be front and center in their news feeds.

All of this can best be explained by Jonathan Simon’s concept of “governing through crime” in which elected officials mobilize the fear of crime and heavy-handed responses to gin up political support. This strategy allows them to avoid dealing with the underlying causes of insecurity such as growing inequality, skyrocketing housing costs, inadequate public health services and underfunded public transit infrastructure. Ultimately, when we see elected officials mobilizing policing as a strategy for addressing crime, we should always ask ourselves what political failures they are trying to cover up by dangling the shiny object of more badges and guns in our faces.

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