Critics of the recent efforts to clampdown on homelessness and fare evasion in New York City’s public transit system say the policy is an attack on poverty among the city’s already underserved communities of color.
In June, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio declared war on fare evasion in New York City’s public transit system by deploying 500 officers to police the city’s “hotspots” where fare evasion has been deemed most common. The majority are MTA officers who are not required to wear body cameras and therefore, critics say, are not held to the same standards of accountability as their NYPD counterparts.
Progressive lawmakers state Sen. Jessica Ramos and Sen. Brad Hoylman are pushing back against the lack of MTA police accountability by advancing legislation that would require MTA officers to wear the same body cameras as NYPD.
“It is imperative that all law enforcement officials abide by the same standards when actively patrolling members of our communities,” says Ramos.
In response to the absence of body cameras on MTA officers policing New York City subways, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, Michael Sisitzky says, ”It’s certainly something we’re concerned about…but the bigger question is why are we adding 500 new officers to the subway system to begin with? There are better ways to invest MTA resources than pouring more money into new cops.”
Progressives are concerned with the racial implications of the recent aggressive push in fare evasion enforcement. Historically, Black and Latino communities appear to be the most heavily affected by officers policing fare evasion. A 2017 Community Service Society report indicates that arrests for fare evasion are more common in the city’s communities of color than in predominately white neighborhoods.
“New York City spends upwards of $50 million dollars every year to arrest, prosecute, or fine low-income New Yorkers who often can’t afford to use public transit—and this is without factoring in the costs of detaining arrested individuals. In other words, the city is using its resources to criminalize poor, predominantly black New Yorkers living paycheck to paycheck.”
Other concerns raised by many New York City policymakers and activists are the financial, as well as ethical, consequences of the fare evasion enforcement rollout. Part of the initiative is a move by the city to hire an additional 500 MTA officers to replace those originally diverted from other locations in the city to combat fare evasion, the projected cost of which over the next decade is $663 million dollars.
Is the deployment and hiring of hundreds of MTA officers to the city’s “hotspots” an effective method of decreasing fare evasion? An August report by The Wall Street Journal indicates subway fare evasion increased from 3.9% in June to 4.7% in August, one month after the redirection of officers from the city’s commuter trains and Bridges and Tunnels division to subways and bus stops in “hotspot” communities.
Critics argue the program is not only ineffective, it is unethical because it targets people of color and those below the poverty line who simply can’t afford to pay the fare. Many impoverished citizens arrested for fare evasion are slapped with fines that are drastically disproportionate to the original fare, spurring on a vicious cycle within the judicial system and criminalizing poverty.
Earlier this year, New York Assemblyman Dan Quart presented a proposal to lower the fare evasion penalty from $100 to the cost of the fare that was evaded.
“My proposal was intended to lessen the burden on poor people and prevent them from being unnecessarily tangled up in the criminal justice system,” Quart explains. “For most people, interactions with the criminal justice system are extremely destabilizing and can have long-term, adverse effects on a person’s housing situation, job, or immigration status.”
In a recent statement to the Wall Street Journal , transit advocacy group, the Riders Alliance, says “The solution is to provide reliable, affordable public transit, not deafening gate alarms or an expensive new police force that targets subway and bus riders.”
Many experts suggest investing more in city-funded subsidized programs like Fair Fares, which provide half-priced Metrocards to low-income residents. The current program only allows for 130,000 of the city’s 800,000 poverty-level residents to qualify for Fair Fares, because the subsidized option is only available to those who are currently receiving government aid.