The New York City subway system has been a mess for years. Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and DA Cy Vance, none of whom ride the subway, have settled on the solution of flooding the subways with 500 new police officers, with de Blasio going so far as to suggest that “75 out of 100” riders agree with the proposal. We did some research of our own, and found a different story: even in a city divided over their comfort with police, New Yorkers are far united in their preference for improving subway service rather than spending money on more police.
We decided to go directly to New Yorkers, surveying subway riders on three occasions in the past month. We approached riders at about a dozen different stations, asking them the same three questions (and optionally recorded demographics):
- Do you support more police in the subway?
- Does the presence of police in the subway make you feel more safe or less safe?
- Would you prefer New York to spend $120 million per year on more police in the subway or better service?
More than 200 riders completed the survey, and though our poll is not scientific, the questions were presented neutrally, and included follow-ups, particularly on the “F” line, where there were long waits between trains.
Here’s what we learned: New Yorkers are split on whether they support more police in the subway and whether the presence of police in the subway makes them feel more or less safe. A slight majority of riders preferred more police in the subway (49%-45%) and said that police made them feel more safe (48%-38%, with 14% expressing that it depending on the circumstance).
These questions broke on generational and racial fault lines — a strong majority of riders age 40 and under opposed more police and said police made them feel less safe, while two-thirds of riders older than 40 supported more police and said police made them feel more safe. Black riders were least likely to feel safe from the presence of police, while white and Latinx riders felt more safe. Women were slightly more inclined to support police on the subway than men (53%-46%).
But here’s the most important takeaway from our survey: more than 90% of riders would rather spend money on improving service than on police, including a strong majority of riders who initially answered that they wanted more police, and felt safer when police were present.
As a longtime criminal justice advocate and progressive Democrat, and now a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, I strongly oppose increased spending on police and incarceration to solve society’s problems. Recent events have predictably shown what can go wrong when there are too many police in the subways without a clear directive: a churros lady was arrested, guns were pulled on a teen for turnstile jumping, and two other teens were Tased seemingly without cause. Packs of police are now everywhere, and service is still terrible.
There are many ways we could actually spend this money to improve service, such as hiring more workers to improve tracks. Because our follow-up questions found that police were most desired during late night hours or in isolated stations, funding could be spent on station agents who could keep an eye on platforms. We could even explore free bus fare, like Kansas City.
Regardless of how we best spend money improving the subway, the results of our survey should at the very least give the MTA Board pause on green-lighting the 500 new officer proposal that they are expected to approve on Wednesday. New Yorkers may have pretty different views on hot-button issues, including the role of police in society, but they are also quite practical, and agree overwhelmingly that more police in the subway is simply not the right way to prioritize resources.