David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

The New York City Police Department has chosen to ignore a new law that – through the power of data – could curb its controversial NYC subway fare evasion arrest policies that disproportionately penalize the poor and people of color. Local Law 47, which took effect on Jan. 11, requires the NYPD to quarterly report its basic data for fare evasion arrests broken down by subway station and racial demographics. But the NYPD, which in other situations boasts of its “data-driven policing” practices, has apparently decided they aren’t beholden to following this law.

The reasons they have given make little sense. The department, among the nation’s first to use data to drive law enforcement strategy, claims that the statistics are difficult to compile—which, if true, would imply they don’t have accurate records on who they are arresting and where these arrests are happening. They also claim that releasing the data would inform turnstile jumpers or terrorists which subway stations to target.

Let’s be clear: there is already ample publicly-available data on policing activity throughout the city. Reasonable efforts to improve transparency for a single, low-level offense doesn’t reveal any new, compromising information on public safety.

So why the stonewalling? Because that’s what this is.

A logical answer to this question is that the NYPD is worried that this data will make it even more than clear that blacks and Hispanics continue to be unfairly targeted for arrest across the city, even as arrest numbers go down citywide, and even in the face of policy changes meant to end this state of affairs.

We know that a total of 11,265 people were arrested for fare evasion from Jan. 1 to April 8 of this year — a nearly 34 percent decrease from 17,046 in the same period last year, according to published reports about the data. And we know that 2,687 were issued a summons, a 55.8 percent decrease from 6,073 last year. But what we don’t know is how many of those arrested or summonsed were people of color. We need to know this. This is what the law was designed to show.

In recent years, the NYPD has arrested more individuals for turnstile jumping than nearly any other offense. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced earlier this year that his office would no longer pursue criminal cases against people arrested for subway fare evasion. He made a compelling argument for moving away from senseless over-prosecution of low-level, non-violent “quality of life” offenses and inflicting needless harm on our fellow New Yorkers who simply cannot afford pay the subway fare. Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has indicated his office will do the same.

Even in the face of an overall decline in fare evasion arrests, though, something is seriously wrong. A report last year by the Community Service Society of New York found that across Brooklyn’s 157 subway stations, 66 percent of those arrested for fare evasion in 2016 were black and 18 percent were Latino. The data the NYPD is holding back would offer more transparency on current fare evasion enforcement, a necessary first step towards more accountability. It’s not clear how fare evasion enforcement priorities have changes since 2016—racial targeting may have declined, or it may have become more entrenched. The way to hold the NYPD more accountable and counter discriminatory policing tactics at the turnstile begins by letting this basic data on fare evasion arrests see the light of day.

The truth is that fare evasion is driven by the city’s affordability crisis. One in four New Yorkers report that they frequently cannot afford bus and subway fares. Yet they still must get to work, to school, to medical appointments. People risk arrest every single day because they don’t have enough money in their pockets to pay the fare, buy food for the week, and pay their rent. Some are caught. People should not be put in this position. Reducing fares for the neediest New Yorkers would greatly reduce their need to skip the fare out of desperation, reducing fare evasion citywide.

Mayor de Blasio can help solve the problem of too many people being arrested for fare evasion – and facing consequences as dire as deportation – by working with the City Council to fund ‘Fair Fares,’ a proposal to provide half-priced MetroCards for working age New Yorkers living at or below the federal poverty line. Council Speaker Corey Johnson has made Fair Fares a top priority in budget negotiations. In a nearly $90 billion municipal budget, it’s hard to believe the mayor can’t come up with the funds necessary to make our public transit system more accessible and affordable for our lowest income residents.

Fair Fares is a simple, sensible way to help make New York the “fairest big city in America.” Mayor de Blasio should seize this opportunity to do something – not only to help mitigate income inequality, but also to put the brakes on discriminatory criminal enforcement.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years, and a member of the MTA Board. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.