Homelessness is Not a Crime: Cops off Our Subways
In response to the February 2021 stabbing of four people on New York City subway, the NYPD has deployed an additional 644 transit and police officers throughout the city’s transit system. This measure was welcomed by the Metropolitan Transit Association (MTA), who had requested a total of 1,500 officers be reassigned to the transit system. Several days later, when two Asian women were attacked by strangers in the subway system, New Yorkers across the political spectrum fell prey to a familiar, faulty logic: The greater the police presence, the safer the city. We know, however, that this is not “commonsense calculus,” as some might put it; the hiring of more police officers simply diverts funds from the people, and does nothing to ensure true, sustainable community safety and well-being.
Some may be inclined to believe that issues of public safety must be addressed by a greater police presence — though all evidence shows we must rethink this assumption. Again and again, city police have proven to be the very sources of harm and violence, especially against marginalized populations living in precarious conditions. Rather than deescalate and “keep the peace,” police officers often resort to brutal tactics that lead to grievous harm, arrests, incarceration, or death. The deploying of additional police officers in our subway system will exacerbate the well-documented targeting and harassment of Black, brown, poor, and working class people — many of whom are unhoused, diagnosed with mental illness, or struggling with substance use. In other words, more police in the subways will threaten our public safety by enabling the continued brutalization of vulnerable New Yorkers — while doing nothing to provide them with the specialized services and care that are proven to lead to community safety.
It must not escape our notice that the four people who were stabbed on the A line in February — along with the alleged perpetrator — were all unhoused. MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick J. Foye and NYC Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg, in their letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea requesting 1,000 additional NYPD officers, noted that the city was facing an “acute mental health crisis” and called for expanded mental health services for the transit system. “The reality,” they wrote, “is that while we provide transportation to millions, we simply cannot also serve as social service providers, nor do we have the deep expertise required.” They are correct in that transit system workers are not equipped to deal with the intersection of rampant homelessness and mental health crises in NYC. And neither are police officers.
The deployment of these 644 police officers — made possible partly through additional overtime pay — eats away at a municipal budget that doles out meager sums to the public agencies and social services that keep the people safe. At a time when politicians tell us we are in a new budgetary crisis that necessitates drastic layoffs of city workers and severe attrition, the police department’s enormous budget remains sacrosanct. It is formally $6 billion, but effectively $11 billion with pensions and overtime — or twice as large as the Los Angeles Police Department budget. The supposed need for an ever-growing police force is rarely questioned, while the jobs of so many public employees (including the MTA employees who operate and maintain our transit system), whose work is indispensable to real public safety and well-being, are regarded as superfluous. NYC residents should be empowered to decide whether it is more important for our tax dollars to continue to sustain a massive police force than it is to fund desperately needed initiatives in healthcare, education, housing, social services, and infrastructure. Police advocates, however, opportunistically leverage real and perceived threats to public safety to divert precious resources from a beleaguered city budget. They’ve used the recent subway attacks to stoke public fear and justify their hoarding of taxpayer dollars — though there was a 60% decrease in transit crime complaints from 2020 to 2021.
Hiring more police officers to patrol our subways will also have a disproportionately negative effect on poor and young Black and brown folks — in a city where the police department remains committed to repressive models of policing (i.e., so called “broken windows” or “quality of life”) that criminalizes poverty. Rules against turnstile jumping, congregating, vending, panhandling, public urination, sexual solicitation, and more are selectively and harshly enforced to harass, intimidate, and arrest city residents who are struggling to survive in the absence of a functioning social safety net. We cannot allow the NYPD to extend this repressive policy in the name of “protecting” subway riders.
Finally, more police in our city’s subways will pose special threats to the large number of people who are unhoused or have been diagnosed with mental health disorders, who have had little choice but to seek refuge underground. With the defunding of social welfare and mental health services, a growing population of individuals with complex health and social needs have been virtually abandoned by the city. Rather than address this crisis in a humane and effective way, the NYPD has a longstanding policy of targeting and criminalizing homeless people in the subways. In fact, in an anonymous letter sent to the Coalition for the Homeless, NYPD Transit officers themselves denounced “the blatant discrimination against the homeless in the NYC subway” by the police — and described how they were expected to invoke transit rules (e.g. simply stretching beyond a single seat) as a pretext to handcuff and arrest anyone who did not have a legal address. In this way, unhoused New Yorkers have often been coerced into dangerous and crowded shelters — and those who refuse to accept services have often been threatened with jail time or costly tickets (for a “violation” that the Manhattan DA has already made clear will not be prosecuted).
While the police continue to fatten their budget, homelessness has been exacerbated during the pandemic. As the Coalition for the Homeless recently testified: “In November 2020, the number of single adults sleeping in Department of Homeless Services shelters each night reached an all-time record 20,515.” The City Government has cynically used a public health crisis as a pretext for suspending overnight subway service in order to clear the trains of homeless people, forcing them into crowded and unsanitary shelters in which social distancing is not possible and literally puts their lives at risk. Such coercive policies often lead to police violence and erode any of the trust established by outreach workers with the city’s growing homeless population, keeping them from the genuine support services they need. Josh Dean, Executive Director of human.nyc, clearly outlines what an alternative approach that does not involve police can look like:
We need to reverse course immediately by defunding the NYPD’s homeless outreach efforts. … Trained homeless outreach workers are the right way forward, and the more they are associated with the NYPD, the less likely it is that homeless New Yorkers will trust them or want to work with them. To meet this need, we must adopt a true Housing First model, moving people from the subways directly into transitional or permanent housing rather than shelter, offering but not requiring engagement in mental health or substance use treatment. The mayor and governor must provide outreach teams with the back-end resources needed to make this a reality. That includes 1) more safe haven beds in locations that people want, with single rooms for privacy, 2) increased development of permanent supportive housing (where year-over-year placements are currently at a 14-year low) 3) more deeply affordable housing that actually allows access to those with the lowest incomes and 4) increasing voucher amounts to Fair Market Rent for voucher holders. In the meantime, outreach workers should not be discouraged or disallowed from meeting people where they are at and providing them with their basic needs, things like socks or water that most of us take for granted, as well as hand sanitizer and masks given the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
In NYC, police officers are all too often the default response to mental health crises — and carceral systems are the default provider of mental health care to many. This essentially amounts to the criminalization of a public health issue — a wildly illogical approach denounced by experts, advocates, and even the police themselves. For several years in a row, Mayor de Blasio has promised to pilot health-first mental health crisis response teams and even pledged $37 million towards this initiative in 2019. In November 2020 he claimed these teams with being in February 2021 — but these teams have yet to appear. Meanwhile, the model of partnering EMTs with mental health experts to respond effectively to 911 calls involving mental illness exists successfully in other jurisdictions in the US — and there exists a clear proposal to implement this model in NYC by Correct Crisis Intervention Today — NYC.
The city must stop criminalizing poverty, homelessness, and mental illness — and already has proposed solutions on the table, if our leaders will only listen and stop yielding to the demands of a bloated police force. Social issues can never be effectively addressed by police harassment, arrests, or incarceration. We must consider policies and fully funded services that will address the systemic social misery that is the real threat to public safety.
The people of New York City need:
- Honest assessments of crime statistics so that the NYPD is not able to exploit public fear of violent crime in order to foreclose debates about the police force’s budget, size, and scope of activities.
- A robust, fully funded set of public policies oriented toward social justice that are implemented by trained professionals.
- An end to utilizing police officers as the first responders in any situation involving homelessness, mental illness, substance use, and other public health issues.
These demands are integral to our broader #DefundNYPD Campaign to:
- Defund the police by $3 billion (50% of its formal budget).
- Dismantle the broader carceral system that includes not only the prison industrial complex but the penetration of police and policing logics throughout the city (e.g., transit system, homeless shelters, public housing, EMS situations, schools, child welfare, and social service agencies).
- Reinvest those funds in community based social programs in order to create a genuinely safe city where all residents can flourish.
#DefundNYPD is a campaign led by NYC-DSA, a local branch of the National Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). They are the largest leftist organization in the United States — and support the people’s demand to defund the police and abolish the prison industrial complex. The DSA works collaboratively with community members, labor unions, and grassroots organizations to build a mass, multiracial, democratic abolitionist movement.