Authorities consider fare evasions in subways and buses across the city as key to improving the city's quality of life. Credit: Metro
Every weekday, an average 5.5 million New Yorkers ride any one of 21 subway routes. Another 2.6 million use the 305 bus routes around the five boroughs.
And while the sounds of swiping cards and the clunks of the turnstile gears are routine for most of the city's straphangers, a handful of riders continue to skip that daily transaction.
The New York Police Department reports thousands of fare evasions between both the subway and bus system across the city, with the immediate issue being the $2.50 the city is shorted with every fare jump. The bigger problem for authorities is what happens when those small infractions grow into bigger ones.
"We have proven time and again that those who evade lawful payment of the fare show a high propensity for committing other crimes within the transit system," said NYPD Transit Chief Bureau Joseph Fox on Wednesday, and that fare evasions play a key role in reducing subway crimes that might put officers and riders alike in danger.
As of late March, police arrested 7,127 individuals for fare evasion within the subway system in 2014 — a 2.3 percent drop from this time last year.
By March 2013, cops had already arrested 7,296 fare jumpers for "theft of service." By the end of last year, more than 28,000 people were arrested for jumping turnstiles.
In all, subway fare evasions made up slightly more than half of the 51,327 total arrests by the city’s transit police bureau.
Buses have also seen their share of fare evaders. This time last year, the NYPD said it arrested 87 riders attempting to skip the bus lines. In the last three months, cops have made 209 evasion arrests on buses.
That's almost half of the number of total 433 bus fare evasion arrests made in all of 2013.
And while most of the stops and arrests end without incident, officers are still at risk with the few cases that escalate. Last week, the bureau's own Officer Karl Kautzsch caught a 16-year-old male who dodged the fare at Aqueduct Racetrack station in Queens.
Kautzsch drew up a summons for the teen, who managed to land a punch on the officer's right eye before Kautzsch broke a rib while restraining the suspect.
In late February, rookie Officer James Li was shot in his leg after he attempted to stop two men from jumping on a bus in Brooklyn through the rear door. One of the suspects pulled out a gun and fired at both Li and his partner while attempting to escape.
The accused shooter, Rashun Robinson, was caught soon after and was found to have an out-of-state warrant in his name for selling drugs.
The link between minor violations and serious crimes is nothing new for the NYPD. Otherwise known as the Broken Windows theory, it has been praised for improving New York City's overall quality of life and criticized for criminalizing the poor and working class communities.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. Credit: Ed Reed/NYC Mayor's Office
One of the biggest proponents of the theory was a predecessor to Fox. Former NYPD transit chief William Bratton applied the theory to the bureau in 1990, specifically targeting fare evasions. Shortly thereafter, then mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed Bratton as his top cop in 1993.
Twenty one years later, Bratton is once again commissioner of the police force, and his renewed interest in the transit bureau gave Fox and his 2,549-member team a "pump" of morale, the chief said.
Only last month did Bratton again affirm his commitment the theory that has come to define his and the bureau's predominant strategy.
"And what did we find? One out of every seven people were wanted on a warrant," he added. "One out of every 21 were carrying weapons, from box cutters up to Uzi submachine guns. So the New York miracle, if you will, began with fare evasion enforcement on the subway 25 years ago."
City Councilwoman Deborah Rose of Staten Island said on Wednesday that she also saw truth in the theory, and that addressing fare evasions in particular should be a priority for both the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority than runs the city’s mass transit system.
"This is a public safety issue that includes police officers, bus drivers and the riding public," she said. "If we could address the issue of someone merely not paying their fare, we might not have to see any escalation of incidents."
Rose first introduced legislation to track fare evasion arrests and summonses individual subway and bus lines in 2012, but it failed to make its way through the Council to a vote before the newest crop of lawmakers joined the body in January.
Like most requests for city data presented by the Council, Rose explained that the information the bill requires is vital to make public transit safer and reduce fare evasions, which the MTA estimated in 2012 cost the agency around $100 million in revenue.
She has since brought the bill back, and hopes that its new “very aggressive progressive agenda” will help send it to the floor sooner rather than later.
"It's about transparency," Rose added. "We need to know what we're dealing with so we can better come up with solutions."
One of those solutions that has helped, Rose said, was the MTA’s Eagle Team — an undercover, plain-clothes group specifically tasked with helping reduce fare evasions along some of the city’s bus routes.
In collaboration with the police, the MTA teams reduced evasions along some of the city’s most used bus routes, including the for the Bronx’s Bx41 select bus service.
A recent report said there was an almost 20 percent rate of evasions along the line before it was assigned an Eagle Team, which has since dropped down to about 5 percent.
For Rose, projects like the Eagle Teams are an effective deterrent that can actually tackle the issue, at least more so than the $100 fine that evaders think they can avoid.