Police Are Arresting People Every Day For Minor Infractions

Should performers sanctioned by the MTA be subject to arrest for drawing a crowd? Photo by Erica Sherman

THE COMMUTE: Two weeks ago, I reported on the TWU’s concern for rider and employee safety. However, according to Channel 2 News, instead of focusing on some of the problems regarding safety, such as the accuracy of crime statistics — a major concern among the prospective mayoral candidates — the transit police are endangering rider safety by arresting and jailing riders overnight for infractions that are usually dealt with by handing out summonses.

Have you ever walked between subway cars at the terminal in Brighton Beach? Not only should that not be illegal because it is not dangerous, it can subject you to a $75 fine or, worse yet, land you in jail. So don’t do it unless your life is in danger. However, that is not even the worst of it. When questioned by Channel 2 News, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly had the audacity to defend the arresting officers, calling this a good police practice. And this man was actually asked to run for mayor?

He had several other choices:

  1. He could have condemned the arresting officers and explain they would be re-instructed.
  2. If familiar beforehand with the specific incidents, he could have explained that their actions were justified due to the specific circumstances, such as refusal to accept the summons, or the person becoming belligerent to the officer.
  3. He could have simply stated that it may or may not have been justified and he would investigate those specific cases and report back at a later date.

Any one of those responses would have been satisfactory. Calling it “good police practice” is not.

While it discourages future illegal acts, it also makes riders fearful to ride the subways. Let’s examine the four transit cases highlighted by Channel 2 News. First, there was the case of the passenger given a summons for occupying two seats on a subway train at 1 o’clock in the morning. It is difficult to imagine the train was crowded at that hour, inconveniencing anyone. If the passenger became belligerent or questioned the officer when he began to write the citation, would you not consider that a normal human reaction?

The larger question that must be asked was why a summons was being written in the first place? Was it to fill quotas that the police commissioner steadfastly refuses to admit exists, but officers insist do exist? Part of good police work is the ability to use discretion when enforcing the rules. A warning would have been more than sufficient.

The next case involved someone walking between subway cars, a practice now considered dangerous. In the past, before the advent of air-conditioned cars, that was routine practice. The end doors were not only unlocked, but also kept in the open position during the summertime on some cars to improve ventilation. In fact, every time the nostalgia train operates, the end doors are still kept in the open position, like in olden days, allowing passengers to walk between cars. Why is that allowed, not considered dangerous, and even encouraged on the nostalgia train that operates every December?

Another case involved someone who walked through the fare gates because he had just paid his fare but had realized too late that he had entered the wrong subway. If there was a station agent on duty, he could have easily explained the situation to them. It happened to me once, when I got off the train at the wrong station in Boston at North Station. I needed South Station instead and was allowed back into the station for the same fare after I explained to the agent what had happened. You can’t give logical explanations to a machine, a fact that highlights the importance of human presence in the system.

The passenger was doing what he believed he was justified to do. The officer was apparently not interested in explanations. What would you do if you already paid your fare, exited through the turnstiles, and then found out you cannot get out of the subway station because the exit was locked? As Matt Flegenheimer of The New York Times asked, would you jump the turnstile just to get back into the subway so you do not remain trapped? The MTA believes you should pay another fare.  What if you do not have it?

The final case was a couple arrested for dancing on the platform. How can that be considered dangerous? Well, according to a professor at John Jay College, who defended the police commissioner, it could cause a crowd to form and someone could be bumped down. By enforcing the law, the police are protecting the public, he stated. Not everyone in criminal justice agrees. Others have criticized these arrests as unnecessarily clogging up the courts.

Okay, Mr. Professor, answer me this: Why could they not have just been given a warning? Why was a summons or an arrest necessary? How did arresting them protect the public? If we don’t want crowds to form on the platform because they are so dangerous, why don’t we have enough trains and subway lines so that some platforms do not become overcrowded every single day?

Hold on, I even have a better one for you, Mr. Professor. If we don’t want crowds to form on our platforms, why does the MTA encourage crowds with the Arts for Transit Program, which permits musical acts and other entertainment on mezzanines as well as on subway platforms? Should MTA officials be arrested also?

What about the Polar Bears? Do they not break the law every time they enter the water without a lifeguard? Why wasn’t Borough President Marty Markowitz arrested when he joined them during his first term in office? We cannot have such selective enforcement of the law. You may be a professor, but with all due respect, as my father used to often tell me, “They don’t teach brains in college.”

That couple arrested for dancing sued the city. I do not remember how that specific case was settled, but I am sure it was not the only lawsuit for false imprisonment. There have been many cash settlements for large amounts — money that could have been spent for transit instead of draining funds from the city’s budget.

People want to feel safe on our subways and buses. They don’t want to think that anything they do might subject them to arrest. Is vomiting in a station illegal? If you feel sick and there are no restrooms available, is there really any time to consult the rulebook to find out?

We need to make our mass transit system more accessible and attract and encourage commuters — not scare off potential riders by engaging in practices that discourage its use.

Most look to additional funding as the key to improving mass transit when there is so much that could be done that does not require more money. Several weeks ago, I took the B4 for the first time to the United Artists Theater in Sheepshead Bay. I discovered that, in the northbound direction, there is not even a bus stop to serve the theater. It is required that you must walk an additional 400 feet in addition to the 200 feet already required.

A new bus stop where there is currently a “No Standing” zone could be easily instituted right in front of the Amity School, which would serve that institution as well. Placing a bus stop closer to the theater would impede traffic. I recently made a recommendation for an additional bus stop to the MTA for them to forward to DOT. I am eager to see if it will be accepted, or if the response I will be given is that the current bus stops are adequate because they are within existing walking guidelines of a quarter-mile.

If so, that is not what the bus driver thought, because he allowed my friend to get off between bus stops, closer to the theater, so he would not have to walk so much since he is an elderly gentleman who has difficulty walking. My friend did not even ask for special treatment. That bus driver also broke the rules. Should he have been arrested too?

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.


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