Updated: New York MTA calls for police and mental health resources following transit worker attacks

May 7, 2021
Leaders in New York City and MTA seem to be at odds over the safety of the city’s subway system.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and Transport Workers Union (TWU) leaders held a press conference at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center on May 6 asking for New York City to increase police presence in the transit system and supply additional mental health resources following attacks on MTA employees, including five between May 5-6.

New York City Transit Conductor Gerard Sykes is recovering at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center after he was slashed in the face while riding the J train. Sykes was off-duty and not in uniform at the time of the attack. Witnesses report the attack was unprovoked.

“This tragic incident underlines once again the critical need for an increased and engaged police presence in our system at this pivotal moment in the city’s history,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye. “People need to be safe, and they need to feel safe while riding the subways, buses and commuter rails – period. Or they won’t come back to transit, which means not coming back to NYC.”

Speaking with members of the media on May 6, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the New York City Police Department was and has been “doing an outstanding job making the subways safe.” Mayor de Blasio noted he would not hesitate to ride the subway, nor would he hesitate in allowing his children to ride.

“The NYPD has made clear that they’ll make adjustments whenever needed. The officers that were surged into the subway helped address some real issues and whenever they have to do that again, they will,” said Mayor de Blasio.

NYPD transit crime statistics comparing January through April 2021 numbers versus the same time frame in 2020 reflect a nearly 46 percent decrease in incidents. However, New York City Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg disagrees with the mayor’s assessment.

“The mayor has gone out repeatedly and said that crime is down in the system, that it is at an all-time low, and no one wants that to be the case more than me, but that is just not sharing the full story,” said Feinberg. “The full story is that given where ridership is, crime should be lower. Of course, this system is safe for the vast majority of people who are using it, but it is not as safe as it could be, and it is not as safe as it should be – particularly for our workforce. And the men and women of New York City Transit deserve better."

MTA notes three-year trends for felony assaults in the subway system are up 47 percent when looking at the January to March time frame of 2021 versus the same months in 2018.

In another high-profile incident from September 2020, Demetrius Harvard is accused of throwing metal debris onto subway tracks that resulted in a derailment with injuries. Harvard had previously been accused of transit vandalism and a psychiatric evaluation was ordered.

“We are in a critical moment in New York’s recovery, when we need people to come back to the city and come back to the transit system. Once again, we ask for the city to step up and put the additional resources we have asked for into the system,” Feinberg added. “And yet instead, day after day, City Hall pretends that we don't have a problem, and that we just pretend this is not happening, that we look the other way and pretend our transit workers aren’t being assaulted. We aren’t going to do that.”

TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano said the city needs to step up to help address the safety issues “because my members are getting assaulted and our families are getting assaulted.”

“We need the police down there and we need the homeless outreach people out there. But the mayor also needs to fix the shelters because you're going to take the homeless out of there, and you're going to put them in a shelter where they don't feel safe. They need police, they need medical people, they need to get help. We need to get these people help – God, this is America. I've said this over and over again. There should not be a homeless problem here. There should not be a homeless problem; they should be taken care of,” said Utano.

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UPDATE

The New York Police Department has agreed to increase the presence of its auxiliary police officers to the city's top 20 busiest subway stations. The city's auxiliary officers are volunteers who serve as "eyes and ears" of a neighborhood. The city says, when possible, they assist in non-enforcement and non-hazardous duties.

Sarah Feinberg issued a statement expressing gratitude for deployment of the additional officers. 

"We know our employees and customers agree: 87 percent of riders say that seeing a visible presence in our system is very important to them. The addition of these officers is a good step forward – but make no mistake more needs to be done to ensure the system comes back, and in turn the city comes back. We know that in order for more and more people to return to mass transit they need to feel safe. That’s why we continue to call on the city to add additional full-time police officers and mental health resources to the subway system immediately,” said Feinberg. 

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.