Are you crazy? The new new thing among the crime deniers is to say that subway crime is not the problem — the problem is your perception of subway crime.
The bad news is that Mayor Adams has joined this camp. Adams deployed this canard earlier this week. Hours before our ninth subway homicide of the year, and the fourth in 17 days, the mayor insisted that “we’re dealing with the perception of fear.” With “3.5 million people using our subway system” daily, he added, “those average of six crimes a day” are not evidence of a system “out of control.”
But “six crimes” is a dodge. The reason people are so fearful on the subway is that the mix of crimes has changed. From January through August, New York’s subway racked up 1,507 felony crimes, just under six per day, yes, and slightly less than the 1,554 felonies recorded in January through August of 2019, before the pandemic. But what are those crimes? In 2019, non-violent felonies, including 981 grand larcenies, comprised two-thirds of subway crimes.
Grand larceny is having your wallet or your phone non-violently stolen. You leave your wallet loose in your backpack, and it’s gone; you leave your purse on the floor, and it’s gone. This theft is a pain, and it teaches you to be more careful. But it doesn’t make people fearful. No one gets PTSD from getting pickpocketed.
Now, grand larcenies are down, by 27%, to 721 through August. But violent crime underground has soared. Again, through August this year, subway passengers and workers became the victims of 783 violent crimes, up 39% since 2019, when the number was 568. Violent crimes now make up more than half of subway felonies, from about one-third in 2019. Accounting for much lower ridership, that makes for a per-ride violent-felony rate of 1.21 per million rides, nearly two and a half times the 2019 rate.
If you take the subway 400 times a year, your risk of being a victim of a violent felony is about one in 2,059. It used to be one in 4,975. That is a big difference.
It is not surprising that people have noticed. But even that understates the case — for all violent felonies are not the same. Nine annual homicides on the subway — and the year isn’t even over — is something New York hasn’t seen since before the mid-1990s. Before 2019, it took six years to rack up nine subway murders. So New Yorkers aren’t just worried about the elevated risk of assault on the subway. They’re worried that an assault can lead to murder.
Like Monday night, when a fight over a dropped cellphone turned into the deadly shoving of 48-year-old Heriberto Quintana in front of a train in Jackson Heights. This all fits into a context that just be blithely dismissed by “six in 3.5 million.” In other words, the person mumbling to himself on the platform is no longer just a harmless person mumbling to himself. We’ve always had those (although we have more now).
The dozens of people surrounding a disorderly person now are well aware of how Michelle Go and, now, Quintana died. So now they must fear that the mumbler will, with no warning, turn into a pusher (or a stabber or a shooter). There is not only more day-to-day disorder, most of which doesn’t even make the felony stats — but all of that disorder is leading to more murder. Can any one of us be sure we’re not going to accidentally bump into someone?
Adams should be thankful that his voters still believe — rightly — that there’s hope for a return to 2019-level crime levels, which is exactly what he won office on. But their perception is correct: things have gone off the rails.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.