The sun still rises in the east, and, equally as shocking, quality-of-life policing in the subways still works, now that we’re trying it again. Mayor Eric Adams’ push to prevent big crime in the subways by stopping small crime yielded several quality arrests last week — but these “successes” point up a failure: The arrestees are often right back on the streets again.
What proved true in the early 1990s, when transit-police chief Bill Bratton cut the annual number of murders on the subways from 26 to one or two, continues to prove true today. Stop a guy jumping the turnstile, and you don’t just save the MTA $2.75: You often prevent a violent crime.
Last Monday, police spotted 22-year-old James Williams jumping the turnstile at Sterling Street in Brooklyn. He also happened, they allege, to be carrying a loaded and defaced gun. (If he was too poor to afford the subway, he could have turned in his gun to the police for a $200 reward.) A Brooklyn judge immediately released him with no conditions.
This in the same week that a similar case came to a sad end. Police shot and killed 25-year-old Rameek Smith in The Bronx, after he shot at them.
Smith was free, awaiting sentencing on an earlier gun charge, after he was caught with a gun beating the fare in Brooklyn in March 2020. It took nearly two years for him to plead guilty in December.
If Smith had already been serving his time for that case, he’d be alive today.
In fact, what people concerned about police shootings miss is that such shootings were far higher in soft-on-crime days, which makes sense: Suspects or convicts free to shoot police get shot themselves. In 1971, the NYPD shot and killed 93 people. By 2013, the figure had fallen by more than 90%, to eight each year for three years running. In 2015, it was five.
Here is where the people who see nothing wrong with how New York’s justice system is working, or not working, pipe up and say, Gotcha: The judge could have set bail for both Smith and Williams.
No one is saying that Williams should languish at Rikers while his case slowly winds its way through the system. As The City reported in March, more than half of the city’s 3,000 gun cases are more than six months old — which is part of the problem.
But setting no bail sends a message to young men, including people tempted (misguidedly) to carry for their own self-defense: Carrying a loaded, defaced firearm into the subway is not a serious crime but more like stealing.
Speaking of stealing, observant transit police also caught a suspected thief last week, someone snatching belongings off unsuspecting passengers. But it turns out it wasn’t the 18-year-old suspect’s first arrest in the subway system for felony theft this month — or his second or his third. It was his fourth.
Police can do the hard work of finding and studying video and still images and spotting a face in a crowd — but if the suspect is immediately released, they just have to find the same person again. (At least he’ll be easier to recognize the fifth time around.)
Same goes for another subway suspect police arrested last Tuesday, responding quickly just after he robbed a female passenger. It wasn’t the alleged robber’s first interaction with police this year: He already faced charges for robbery and shoplifting (both outside of the subway). Just a week earlier, he had won no-bail release on the robbery charge.
Again, judges can levy bail on such “persistent offenders.” But they usually don’t. So with courts backlogged since before COVID, a defendant can keep committing new crimes.
Yet another suspect arrested last week in the subways was allegedly carrying a fake gun — and was also wanted on a two-year-old felony assault case.
Perceived missteps aside, like going after fruit seller Maria in a Brooklyn subway, police have made a decent start to achieving Adams’ goal of reasserting control over the subways.
But police are not prosecutors, judges or social workers. Rearresting the same people underground, over and over, quickly becomes not success but failure.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.