NEW YORK — It began in the early days of the pandemic in March, when someone lit a fire inside a subway car that killed the train operator and injured 16 others. In the following months, nearly 500 subway car windows were smashed on the No. 7 line. In August, a man tackled and tried to sexually assault a young woman at a station on the Upper East Side. And in September, a train derailed after a man threw metal clamps that he had stolen onto the tracks.
When the pandemic hit New York and subway ridership plunged, misdemeanor and felony crimes dropped to record lows: Between January and the end of September, the number of reported crimes in the system fell roughly 40% compared with the same period last year.
But even as overall crime has declined, violent crime and episodes of vandalism are rising, a trend that is stoking fear among passengers and posing another challenge for a transit system crippled by a virus outbreak that has deprived it of riders and money.
So far this year, the number of reported homicides, rapes, burglaries and robberies in the subway are higher than during the same period last year, according to Police Department statistics. Incidents of vandalism have also spiked, transit officials say.
The subway is still far safer than during the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, when violence on the graffiti-filled system was rampant and riders feared riding at night or in empty cars. But after two decades of steady declines in felonies, the recent uptick in major crimes — several of which have been captured on video and circulated on Twitter — has fed a perception among many riders that the system is slipping back into disorder.
That negative image comes at a moment when the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the subway, is desperate to win back riders as it grapples with the worst financial crisis in its history and tries to recover fare revenue that practically vanished overnight.
“It’s more important than ever that riders feel safe getting back on the system,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, a watchdog group. “They shouldn’t feel like they are risking their health, and they should also know they are not risking their life. There was some sense of safety riders got when it was more crowded and there were more eyes in the system. Now stations and train cars have fewer people.”
So far this year, homicides have reached their highest level in three years: Six people have been killed in the subway, compared with two in all of last year, one in 2018 and none in 2017. Five rapes have been reported this year, compared with two last year.
Robberies have risen 16%, to at least 457 so this year, compared with 394 during the same period last year. The number of burglaries, including breaking into shops on platforms, stands at 22 so far this year, compared with five in the same period last year. And acts of vandalism have spiked 24% to 868 so far this year, compared with 702 last year, according to the transit agency.
Police officials have cautioned against being overly alarmist, noting that crime is nowhere near as bad as it was in decades past, when violence plagued the entire city, including the subway. In 1990, for example, there were 26 homicides in the system.
“We have these high-profile crimes on occasion, but that does not define the system,” Edward Delatorre, the transit police chief, said. Still, he added, “We are not going to tolerate lawlessness in the subway system.”
The drop in ridership during the pandemic has helped push down overall crime. Today, ridership is around 30% of prepandemic levels.
But while fewer riders has meant fewer possible targets for petty crimes — like sleeping passengers victimized by pickpockets — it has also meant that criminals may feel emboldened because there are fewer potential witnesses.
“It’s a reflection of what’s happening in the city generally, and it’s a reflection of the system having been more empty than we’ve seen it in a long time,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit.
To tackle safety concerns, the MTA hired 85 uniformed and unarmed security guards to patrol the subway and report crimes to the police. At any given time, there are as many as 60 MTA police and 300 city police officers in the subway, according to the transit agency. (A Police Department spokesman would not comment on the number, citing security reasons.)
In recent months, transit officials have called for additional uniformed city police officers to patrol the system after riders and transit workers complained of seeing fewer officers in the subway.
“The NYPD Transit Bureau is doing what it can, but anecdotally it feels like the police have taken a step back in the system and I think that’s reflective of what we’ve seen across the city,” said Feinberg, referring to elected officials’ claims that the Police Department had engaged in an undeclared work slow down in response to this summer’s protests over police brutality.
Delatorre disputed that notion, explaining that many officers in the subway are in plainclothes and not recognizable to the public. “Our officers are in the system focusing on the crimes that we’re seeing,” he said. “Precision policing has come into play.”
With the pandemic draining public transit systems across the country of their passengers, the effect that low ridership has had on crime has varied in big cities.
While Boston and Washington have not experienced any spike in crimes in public transit, Chicago has seen an increase in robberies and Philadelphia has seen a rise in felony assaults as well as robberies on their systems, according to police data and transit agencies.
For many riders still using public transportation in New York, the system’s emptiness has instilled a sense of insecurity and raised fears about being mugged or attacked when waiting on a desolate platform or if they happen to be the only person in a train car.
“We didn’t always feel safe before, but we definitely don’t feel safe now,” said Dana Drazila, whose 68-year-old mother was shoved onto the train tracks at the 14th Street-6th Avenue Station in Manhattan on her way home from her job as a housekeeper in July.
Passersby managed to pull her up from the tracks before a train arrived, but Drazila suffered five broken bones in her spine and two broken ribs. For two months after the attack, Drazila avoided public transit altogether, her daughter says. But at the end of September she had to return to work — and to the subway.
“She has been very nervous but at the same time she needs to work, she needs the income,” the younger Drazila said. “My brother begged her to retire, but she can’t. Now we are all worried about safety.”
Other riders have changed their commuting habits to cope with their sense of unease.
Waiting for a train at the Jay Street-MetroTech station in Brooklyn, Sandra Avila, 49, said that she began avoiding empty train cars after she and her 19-year-old daughter were alone in one recently when a man entered and harassed them.
But the decision to board more crowded trains is a trade-off: She is concerned about being exposed to the virus during her commute to work.
“I’m uncomfortable,” Avila said. “I see people without masks sometimes, and it makes me really nervous.”
In a recent MTA survey of 20,000 people, a majority of riders identified people wearing face coverings and general health-related safety issues as their top concerns; worries about crime and harassment came in third.
For transit workers, whose ranks were decimated by the virus, personal safety has also become a major issue: Felony and misdemeanor assaults on transit workers in the subway have increased 57% so far this year compared with the same period last year, according to the MTA.
“It’s reminiscent of the bad days, the crack epidemic and the chaos that reigned in the city back then,” said Erik Garces, a train conductor who was knocked unconscious in September after a passenger approached his cabin from the platform and smashed a glass bottle over his head.
Only four months earlier, Garces had another unsettling on-the-job experience: One night in June, after his train was delayed between stations, two men tried to kick open the door of his cabin and screamed at him to move the train.
“That was one of the few times in my adult life,” he said, “that I have been scared like that.”