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The Class War of Fare-Dodging Crackdowns

The influx of police officers into New York's subway system is part of a broader criminalization of poverty.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

With New York City making the decision to shut down Rikers Island, and Americans increasingly aware of the deep inequities of the current justice system, one would almost think the U.S. is on the brink of reconsidering the carceral state. And yet, two weeks after New York’s City Council voted to shutter its infamously cruel penitentiary, the city is embroiled in a fresh law-and-order controversy: police brutality on the subway, following Governor Andrew Cuomo’s summertime decision to flood the transit system with cops.  

Pointing to reports that the subway system was losing $300 million annually to fare evaders, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in June announced a crackdown, stopping and fining every turnstile jumper they can catch. To do so, they injected 500 MTA and NYPD police officers into the subway system. So far, this has gone about as well as one might expect, with recent reports of riders—particularly black riders—being tackled and tased over the cost of a subway ride. To the detriment of the entire city, Cuomo and MTA leaders have decided that criminalizing poverty and leaning on fines are the best approach to dealing with the MTA’s financial insecurities. 

The cost of riding the subway has risen dramatically in the past five decades, and not entirely because of inflation: The subway fare in 1980 was $0.60, which in today’s currency would be $1.75, a whole dollar cheaper than the actual current rate. The MTA does offer a reduced fare that is half of the $2.75 fare that most have to pay, but it is reserved for riders who are over the age of 65 or living with a disability.

While the MTA takes in some $4.5 billion annually in bus and subway fares, decades of neglect by New York governors and MTA heads have left the subway’s century-old switch system and other infrastructure in dire need of updating, triggering a crisis in 2017 and routine delays to this day. To fix this, the city has paid enormous contracts to external construction companies—per a July 2017 study, the MTA’s operating costs had “outpaced inflation by 50%” since 2002.

And so, instead of the MTA and Cuomo fixing the public transit system from the top-down as critics have proposed, it is looking to replace full-time employees with contractors and finance a fine-heavy police force, all to achieve the hopeless goal of fully paying off its debt, which is at $44 billion and counting. In the meantime, New Yorkers stare at advertisements plastered in the subway cars instructing them to simply pay the $2.75 opposed to the $100 fine for evading. Announcements buzz over the PA system, admonishing the less fortunate for soliciting spare change, telling riders to not give them money and instead reserve their crumpled dollars for charities or shelters. Meanwhile, other trains still crawl through the tunnels and sit for minutes with their doors open in the station without making a single announcement.

Social media, for all its ills, offers an opportunity for citizens who would otherwise be able to avoid and ignore the police violence in the subways due to various racial and socioeconomic advantages—i.e. being white and/or living in an affluent neighborhood—to see the reality facing the rest of the city.

Videos, images, and stories of police brutality against those who have broken that holy law of paying $2.75 to ride New York’s derelict subway system have all been making the rounds this past week. (These citizen reports are particularly important given that the officers in the tunnels aren’t required to wear body cams.)

In one case, officers pointed their guns through the windows of a packed subway car, aiming at Adrian Napier, who the officers believed to be in possession of a gun. Napier was not carrying a gun, so, after they rushed the 19-year-old with guns drawn, threw him to the ground, and frisked him, the police charged him with fare evasion—or, as it plays better on the local news, “theft of services.”

Another would-be teenage subway rider was struck with a pair of high-voltage strikes from an officer’s Taser for trying to slip into the tunnels without swiping.

In another incident, a bystander trying to break up a fight (at the 55-second mark in the video below), was blindsided by a right hook from a uniformed officer that landed him square in the jaw and sent him tumbling to the ground.

The stories go on and on forming a disturbing trend—according to the MTA’s own data, of the 148 people arrested for evasion in the second quarter of 2019, 101 of those stopped by police were black.

Andrew Cuomo’s decision to send these police to the subway tunnels in the first place is all the more mystifying given that—as AM New York reported—fare evasion in the subways is a minor affair compared to fare evasion on buses: The revenue lost from the top-five bus routes with the highest fare evasion rates is equal to that of revenue lost from turnstile-hoppers at the top-50 subway stations.

Moreover, were the MTA actually concerned with lowering its operating costs, hiring 500 full-time officers would seem counterproductive. The Citizens Budget Commission, a non-profit, nonpartisan group that studies how tax dollars are spent with a focus on efficiency, found in September that the first year of paying the salaries and benefits of the officers, and 81 managers needed to oversee them, will cost the MTA $56 million; if the MTA maintains this approach for ten years, the annual cost will double to $119 million, over a third of what it says it now loses to fare evasion.

This past August, Governing magazine published a report, “Addicted to Fines,” looking at similar fine-heavy approaches being taken by various local governments and agencies. Connecting the dots already reported by local news outlets, from upstate New York to Louisiana to Texas to Mississippi, Governing found that in almost 600 U.S. jurisdictions, at least 10 percent of the town, city, or county general fund revenues came from fines; for 284 of those, the number was above 20 percent. In essence, fare fines (i.e. fines in excess of the original cost of fare) were operating similarly to speed traps: as an alternate source of revenue.

Last December, the Washington D.C. Council voted to decriminalize fare evasion, against the wishes of Metro leaders, who warned that the move would produce “significant safety and financial consequences.” Four weeks later, the Metro announced that 2018 had been the lowest year for crime in the system since 2000. In May, a poll was released showing that Metro riders were enjoying the system at a rate nearing their mid-decade peak. That’s not to assume causation with the decriminalization of evasion, and even comparing the D.C. Metro—a relatively confined operation that infamously shuts down too early to bring home those who venture out to see late-night sports or concert events—to New York City’s sprawling 24/7 system is not a perfect match. But it is fair to say that there very clearly is an alternative way for the MTA to approach its many issues. Instead, it has chosen the costly path of physical resistance.

Ultimately, as with the many other ways that poverty is de facto criminalized in American life, New York’s anti-fare-dodging campaigns involve people at the top, hauling down seven- and six-figure salaries, telling working people able to afford weekly and monthly MetroCards that the people making even less than them are the problem. An alternative to participating in this campaign would be simple: If the fare machines are even functional that day, and you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a weekly or monthly card with unlimited rides, don’t snitch—just swipe it forward.