In December 2017, a local law took effect requiring the NYPD to publicly release data on the number of arrests and summonses for fare evasion by race, sex and age for every subway station.
But the NYPD has yet to comply with this law, a tacit endorsement of “broken windows” policing. That’s a tragedy, because the way cops approach this offense is racially biased.
The intent of the disclosure law is clear: to shed light on the NYPD’s ongoing practice of targeting black and brown communities for fare evasion enforcement and disproportionately criminalizing poverty in these neighborhoods.
In response, the NYPD has released some data, but it is largely useless for assessing where fare evasion enforcement is happening. No arrest totals are reported for 462 of the 472 stations in the system. The clearest takeaway from the NYPD data is that they don’t want the public to know where they are targeting their fare evasion enforcement.
This week, a state Supreme Court judge effectively rebuked the department, ordering it to release data on fare evasion arrests and summonses for every subway station. If Mayor de Blasio is seriously interested in addressing systemic racism and leveling the economic playing field, he needs to instruct the NYPD to comply with this order immediately.
Then he must go further, demanding an end to the obvious and longstanding practice of aggressive fare evasion enforcement in communities of color.
The court order comes less than a week after a group of anonymous New Yorkers plastered their own revamped ads about fare evasion across the subway system, urging people to take a kinder approach and “swipe it forward” to lend a hand to struggling New Yorkers. These ads were a response to an ongoing MTA ad campaign aiming to “deter — not arrest — fare evaders.”
Here’s the problem: no amount of ads or police can deter low-income New Yorkers from their economic struggles. More than two out of five working-age New York City adults below the federal poverty level say they’re often unable to afford subway and bus fares.
The implication that you can deter New Yorkers from evading the fare when they don’t have enough money to make ends meet is not only cruel; it sends the message that their economic struggles are a crime.
The MTA’s fare evasion campaign is expensive. The ads take up scarce space that could be used to generate revenue. The MTA is also hiring 500 new transit police to address quality of life issues including fare evasion. That’s in addition to 500 officers who were reassigned to address farebeating in June. The Citizens Budget Commission estimates that the new hires alone will cost $56.1 million in the first year.
Meanwhile, the de Blasio administration is slowly rolling out half-fare MetroCards to eligible New Yorkers through its Fair Fares program. As of Sept. 24, the city reports 75,122 registered Fair Fares participants. Approximately 700,000 New Yorkers were estimated to be eligible this year.
Yes, it is true: The NYPD is making considerably fewer fare evasion arrests than it once did. But it is still punishing more people overall by issuing more and more summonses that come with a hefty $100 fine. And officers continue to arrest and issue summons to people of color at staggeringly high rates: Nearly 89% of arrests were of people of color, as were 81% of summonses.
The MTA claims that fare evasion is on the rise and they need to rein it in to provide better service. If fare evasion is on the rise — which is not obvious given the lack of credibility of their survey methods — any viable solution has to address the economic need that often drives people to do it.
Criminalizing poverty only makes it harder for struggling New Yorkers to find work or affordable housing, while diverting scarce public resources away from the neediest New Yorkers. The city and MTA need to work together to give low-income New Yorkers more support, not use the transit system as a tool to shame and criminalize.
Jones is president and CEO and Stolper is the senior economist at the Community Service Society