The kid with the dark-blue hoodie and the shark-smile backpack who vaulted over the turnstiles Tuesday morning at the 205th Street-Norwood subway station did not look like a threat to society. He did not menace anyone as he leaned quietly against a column waiting for the downtown D train to arrive. When the train came he took his seat, silently traveled one stop, then switched to the local B at Bedford Park Boulevard.
It was unclear why he jumped the turnstile. He might have lost his student MetroCard and been late for school. It’s possible he had money to buy a new card but, as is almost always the case, the dispenser machines—there’s no human-staffed booth—at that entrance may not have been working: refusing to take cash, unable to read a credit card, maddeningly insensitive to the fingers tapping its touchscreen. Or perhaps he wanted to save a couple bucks.
Whatever his motive, he was one of the lucky ones. Some 30,000 people were arrested last year for the offense listed in New York’s penal code at section 165.15, or “theft of services,” the vague official designation for turnstile-jumping. Advocates say four times that number were given summonses for the offense. Among misdemeanor arrests during the first two years of the de Blasio administration, arrests for 165.15 averaged 2500 a month, second only to assault in frequency.
Those numbers are the result of an aggressive enforcement effort. At the very entrance the young scofflaw used, at the corner of 205th Street and Perry Avenue, police officers often wait at the foot of the ramp from the turnstiles to the platform, hiding behind a pillar, hoping to catch someone trying to snag a free ride.
On Wednesday, police reform advocates will protest that enforcement regime with an event they call “Swipe it Forward,” during which, according to the organizers, “participants will gather at stations across New York, swiping in New Yorkers who are in need.”
The critique isn’t just about the de Blasio era, says Albert Saint Jean of the Black Alliance. “It’s been an injustice for along time.” Turnstile-jumpers never gained the symbolic profile that squeegee men achieved in the early days of “broken windows” under Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton. One rationale for the focus was that the people breaking that law were likely to have committed, or be about to commit, other crimes. A different strain of broken windows theory had it that crimes like turnstile-hopping create an atmosphere of disorder in which more serious criminality takes root.
Needless to say, both veins of reasoning have their doubters. But that’s not the only reason to bust fare-beaters. For one thing, the transit system depends on fares for just under half of its roughly $17 billion in revenue, and the fewer people who pay, the more strain it puts on other riders and other revenue sources to make up the difference. Another reason: fairness. The vastly overwhelming number of riders in low-income neighborhoods pay the toll, and don’t always look favorably on those who don’t.
Saint Jean gets that. “We’re not saying we should just let people jump turnstiles. We’re saying the way they enforce it is wrong.” Fiscally wrong, to be precise: By the advocates’ calculation (based on their unofficial estimate of what each misdemeanor arrest costs), the police time spent processing theft-of-services arrests total $52 million, which is about $11 million more than it would cost to give 30,000 free, monthly unlimited MetroCards.
What would be a better way? Saint Jean says lowering the fare to reflect people’s stagnant wages would be one smart step.