National Guard soldiers are ill-equipped to respond to NYC subway crime, former officers say

The 750 National Guard soldiers Gov. Kathy Hochul deployed to New York City’s subway last week to do rider bag checks are ill-equipped to respond to the crimes New Yorkers are actually concerned about, former law enforcement and police officials said.

The soldiers lack arrest powers, aren’t trained in handcuffing techniques or local policing laws, and may not be able to communicate with NYPD and MTA officers in an emergency, experts said.

And while the NYPD is the chief law enforcement agency underground, neither police officials nor the National Guard answered questions about how the agencies will coordinate their operations.

“Are [National Guard soldiers] trained to get into those subway cars to help out with all the safety procedures that the New York City transit police are trained to deal with?” asked Bill Bratton, who served twice as the city’s police commissioner. “I’m not all that sure any of their activities are going to have a direct impact on what is effectively causing the problems in the subway system as it relates to crime and disorder.”

Hochul last week ordered the National Guard soldiers and 250 MTA police and state troopers to help NYPD officers check randomly selected bags in an effort to make people feel safer after a series of high-profile subway crimes. The National Guard isn’t commenting on its new role, but the governor has said her intention is to restore safety while preserving civil liberties.

Still, experts said it’s unclear whether soldiers in camouflage will make a dent in crime through bag checks.

Brandon del Pozo, a former NYPD precinct commander who served in the National Guard with three states, said the soldiers’ role in searching bags might be futile. “Nobody is carrying a weapon in a bag that’s subject to search,” said del Pozo, who wrote a piece in urban policy journal Vital City criticizing the policy. Weapons are generally carried in waistbands or pockets, not backpacks, he said.

Del Pozo helped implement the NYPD’s initial random bag search program in the wake of bombings abroad in the mid-aughts. “But the bag checks were never designed or meant to detect handheld or personal weapons,” he said. “We implemented them to stop people from bringing bombs on the train.”

Guard members and their heavy weapons would be beneficial in the event of a terrorist attack, del Pozo said, which is why they were deployed in the subways after 9/11. But for routine criminal matters, like responding to a complaint about a groping or robbery, they would have to yield to the nearest NYPD officer because the National Guard doesn’t have powers of arrest.

“If you really get to the bottom of what people are concerned about it, it’s this small chance of a mentally ill person pushing you onto the tracks,” del Pozo said. But mental illness, he noted, cannot be addressed by looking in someone’s bag.

While the National Guard cannot make arrests, it can assist law enforcement officers in detaining a suspect if there’s an imminent threat, according to the governor’s office.

If someone is carrying a weapon in a bag and sees the bag check, they could turn around and leave the station, or enter the system at a different point, law enforcement experts said. “Picking the subcategory of people who carry their illegal weapons in a bag, and saying some of them might get screened, and if they get screened they have the option of turning around, what does that even do?” del Pozo asked.

Bratton said Hochul’s move raises some sticky questions about police powers: The NYPD has to document every encounter with police; will the National Guard have to fill out reports? Specific guidelines govern officers’ use of stop, question and frisk tactics; will the soldiers have to adhere to these guidelines?

Law enforcement officials have not said what protocols Guard members have been given for responding to the two kinds of subway incidents that prompted their assignment — shootings and random pushes onto the tracks.

“When you put one of these programs together in a hurry, you have to be careful to cover all the bases,” Bratton said.

Rafael Mangual, an author and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, questioned whether the soldiers will have body-worn cameras, like NYPD officers do. State troopers are required to wear body cameras, but the National Guard is not.

It’s also unclear how officers and soldiers can communicate over radio in the subway, particularly during an emergency, Bratton and other law enforcement experts said. “Who’s in charge if something happens?” he asked. “It’s essential that you have that so there’s no questioning of lines of authority in normal patrol times or times of emergency.”

The NYPD did not answer questions about communicating with the National Guard via radio and whether Guard members will be trained in local laws and enforcement techniques.

“The NYPD is in charge of safety and security of millions of passengers who use the New York City Subway System each day,” an department spokesperson said in a statement. “We will continue to work hand in hand with our various partners to protect all NYC Transit riders.”

A spokesperson for the National Guard directed questions about the soldiers’ role and communication logistics to Hochul’s office. A spokesperson for the governor referred Gothamist to comments Hochul made on MSNBC last week, but did not address details around Guard activities.

“The objective is to restore the sense of safety and security in our subways, make people know that they’re going to get to their destination without any harm,” Hochul said during that appearance. “We care about civil liberties. We don’t want overpolicing. We want to make sure that police operate within certain restraints, protect our citizens’ rights.”

Keith Taylor, a retired NYPD sergeant and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the soldiers’ presence could make some people feel better. But he said questions remain about whether the soldiers can use force. “If someone pulls out a gun, are they allowed to shoot them or are only the civilian law enforcement allowed to do that?” Taylor asked.

Hannah Meyers, a director of policing and public safety at the Manhattan Institute who spent five years with the NYPD Intelligence Bureau, said “it seems pretty clear that the governor didn’t consult any law enforcement before rolling out the plan.”

“Law enforcement would have never endorsed it or suggested it,” she added, noting National Guard members do not know New York City law like NYPD officers do, including what constitutes a weapon. “They don’t know if a three-inch knife is legal or not legal on the subway.”

Since Hochul’s announcement, there have been some hints that the NYPD isn’t fully on board with her plan. In an instance of police brass delving into political debates on social media, NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell wrote on X: “Our transit system is not a ‘war’ zone! Bag checks have been around since 2005???” He went on to criticize judges and criminal justice reforms for being too lenient on recidivists.

Meyers said a better approach toward subway crime would be addressing minor violations, such as fare evasion, where police can determine if someone has a weapon or an active warrant for their arrest. “You can’t do it by checking the random woman with the bags,” she said. The NYPD is already spending millions of dollars on a renewed focus on combatting fare dodging.

Rafael Mangual said one implication of the bag check program is that state police and MTA officers are not available to patrol subway platforms and cars. He said a better solution for fighting subway crime would be building up the ranks of police who patrol transit stations, including having undercover officers on platforms and manning turnstiles.

“That would be much more effective in getting at the kind of offenses that brought the pressure to bear,” Mangual said. “We’re worried about stabbings, random attacks from vagrants.”

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