What will soldiers in the subways achieve? We asked an expert.


About a thousand National Guard members and New York State troopers began arriving in New York City Subway stations this week. The move was Gov. Kathy Hochul’s response to a string of high profile violent crimes on the transit system, even while crime stats have begun to trend downward on trains.

The added personnel are conducting mandatory bag checks at busy subway stations, though the governor declined to say for how long.

Henry Smart III, assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, joined WNYC’s All Things Considered this week to walk us through the implications. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sean Carlson: Professor, do we know how effective something like mandatory bag checks are at driving down subway crime?

Henry Smart: I wouldn’t say we would know it in every scenario, in every context. I think what’s important is that there is a show that the state and the city are interested in addressing the problem. The question is, is it proportional to the conditions? Uh, and I think that’s where you’re seeing some of the fanfare and the news coverage where you hear about the military coming into the underground system.

It signals extra. And I think that’s what we’re concerned about is — is it necessary? And were there other creative ways to use what we already have in place to meet the goals of both the government as well as the concerns of the citizens? How much of this is a matter of psychology more than anything else?

When the governor rolled the plan out, she was very clear that she was appealing to the emotions and the feelings, which you don’t often hear from politicians, but maybe some consultation with citizens and asking them what do they need to feel safe in a very broad way.

If you don’t have the ability to send folks out to talk to Everyday Joe and Jane, then you need to at least consult professionals that work in behavioral health and understand the human psyche in a way that we’re not going to introduce additional anxiety into the subway system.

Now, data we have from the NYPD shows that crime in the subway was down by more than 2.5 percent last year from 2022. From a historical perspective, how bad is subway crime right now?

Here’s what I can tell you about incidents in the MTA system. I’m really speaking from recent data: There were 461 in October. At the end of February, even with those two most egregious stories of a shooting on a train platform and a conductor having his neck slashed, we were down by 16 percent when compared to October.

So, starting the year out, if it weren’t for the salacious stories and the most horrific stories leading the year — if we allowed maybe another month or two and observed those statistics for the MTA system — we may also find that the complaints continually declined as well because that’s the actual trajectory that we were on just for the first two months of the year.

So the situation is a thousand additional law enforcement will be in the system. That’s a fairly significant number, right? But they’re gonna be checking bags. Is there anything else they can be doing other than that, that would deter subway crime?

I thought about this a little bit before our conversation. I’m prior Marine Corps. Um, I understand sort of basic war patrol, if you will. And the idea is that you cover as much maintenance land as you can or territory and you report back to the others what you saw. And I think this can be without the guardsmen. I think this could have been the quality of the patrol, the MTA officers could have been improved just with the folks that they had on hand.

So think about yhe times that you’ve seen an MTA officer on a train with you, they may ride two, three, four, five stops, or they may ride longer on that car than I am because maybe I’m only going two stops. I would encourage them to cover more territory. So for every stop, get off. If you’ve made your quick assessment and it needs to be quick, go to the next car, make another assessment.

It will give the impression that there are more police officers or that there’s more rigor to the patrol. And in fact, I would argue. It is because they’re covering more territory. And so I think raising vigilance and having strategic vigilance works in almost every scenario.

When Mayor Adams talks about this, he says the city is dealing less with an issue of rampant crime on the subways, and more with the fact that subway crimes are committed by repeat offenders. Is that the right analysis? And how do you tackle that problem?

Thinking about, sort of like, gang studies, and then they realize in major cities like Los Angeles, it was a core of, like, 17 people — I might be off on the number —  that if they were able to actually put these folks in correctional services, crime would significantly go down.

Now, if you just process that for a moment, it’s just a few people, but in a city of eight million plus, it’s causing hysteria. It’s causing folks to avoid systems that really need our financial support in order to fund the city. So I think the bullet point about adding surveillance and cameras that actually work as folks enter the system that will allow the M.T. A. to actually monitor an individual from the time they get into the system from the time that they leave. One way to sort of look at this is if you look at San Francisco, they have a camera system that literally, through AI and use of AI, will follow a perpetrator almost to the ends of the city. Because they have tapped into a network of cameras that then trade off that footage to the next available camera. And I think Maybe New York City needs to start thinking about, how do we do that?

So along with the deployment of the additional officers in the subway and the surveillance that you’ve been talking about, another thing that the governor is pushing for, is a bill in Albany that would prohibit some violent offenders from riding the transit system for three years. How would you assess that proposal?

I’m for it. That bullet point didn’t get much coverage but that one is important. That type of signaling needs to come through in the MTA’s announcements when we’re in cars, reminding people of the fines and the consequences of ill behavior. Part of public safety is also educating the public about what’s right and what’s wrong and to look out for each other. We don’t get enough of that messaging, people’s faces are more in their cell phones. And so getting away with a crime, even if this is something like stealing a purse, you’re more likely not to be seen by people in modern times.

We’re all focused on something else other than each other. And I think just having a message that we repeat and put into the psyche of the public: Let’s support each other by paying attention to each other. That’s how we contribute to the thing that we call public safety. We don’t have enough police officers, and I don’t think adding numbers is the answer.

I think the quality of the collective activity of everyone involved will get us to the end that we’re interested in.

Are there other things that different levels of government can do outside of increased law enforcement to put a bigger dent into subway crime?

I’m old enough to remember PSAs. Uh, so it’s not just the PSAs that are happening on the train, but also PSAs that feed into our homes.

If safety is a value, let’s express that in as many mediums as possible. If it’s teenagers that you’re trying to reach, go where they are, go to TikTok, and remind them “Hey, by the way, here are the penalties for this,” you know? As overt and weird and corny as that may sound, this is how you get into the psyche of those that have ill intent.

You meet them where they are and you remind them. If you’re thinking about it today, here’s what might happen.



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