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In New York, subway attack adds to fears that city has grown dangerous

Police said at least 29 people were injured, 10 of them by gunfire, after a man opened fire in a rush-hour subway train in Brooklyn on April 12. (Video: Alden Nussar, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — When Nick Laforte heard about Tuesday morning’s shooting at the 36th Street subway station, he first thought of his wife and daughter. Each day, they board the train at that very stop, one bound for Manhattan and the other heading further into Brooklyn.

After a spike of fear, Laforte was relieved to learn both women were safe. But the incident left him deeply uneasy. “It feels like things are getting out of control,” said Laforte, a retiree and Brooklyn native: “I love New York, there’s no place like this.” Still, for the first time, he found himself thinking about leaving.

Tuesday’s shooting in Brooklyn was a commuter’s worst nightmare, with panicked riders fleeing a subway car full of smoke and gunfire. According to local hospitals, nearly 30 people were treated for injuries, 10 of them with gunshot wounds.

The attack will intensify the disquiet among New Yorkers about violence in the nation’s largest city, including an increasing number of shootings and rising crime in the subways, the city’s lifeblood.

Tackling New Yorkers’ sense of insecurity is the top priority of the city’s new mayor, Eric Adams (D), a former police captain who took office in January and pledged to take a tougher approach to reducing crime.

It is proving an uphill task: Crime in all major categories, except homicides, has surged in the first months of this year compared with the same period in 2021. Robberies are up nearly 50 percent while shooting incidents have risen 14 percent, according to data from the New York Police Department.

Meanwhile, a series of high-profile crimes have left New Yorkers reeling. They include the killing of a 40-year-old woman who was pushed in front of an oncoming subway train by a man with a history of violence and mental health issues; the fatal shooting of a 16-year old girl earlier this month near her high school; and a grandmother shot and killed by a stray bullet in front of a bodega.

The current increase in crime in no way compares to the wave of violence that engulfed New York in the 1970s. Indeed, before the pandemic, crime rates had dropped to all-time lows. Yet it still represents an enormous challenge as the city tries to get back on its feet after a devastating loss of life and livelihoods to the virus.

New Yorkers’ sense of safety has deteriorated. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found that less than half of the city’s voters felt safe using the subway during the daytime, compared to 76 percent six years ago. In the same survey, three-quarters of the city’s voters said that crime is a very serious problem, the highest proportion since the survey started asking the question in 1999.

At a briefing in Brooklyn on Tuesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) promised to deploy “the full resources of the state” to fight crime at a time when the city’s residents craved stability after the long years of the pandemic.

“No more mass shootings. No more disrupting lives. No more creating heartbreak for people just trying to live their lives as normal New Yorkers,” Hochul said. “It has to end, it ends now.”

Adams, who is currently isolating at home after testing positive for the coronavirus, said he would “not allow New Yorkers to be terrorized” and vowed to find the perpetrator, who remained at large as of Tuesday evening. In an interview with CNN, Adams said he planned to double the number of officers patrolling the city’s subways.

He also noted that other large cities are confronting the challenge of rising crime. What “we’re facing is a problem that is hitting our entire nation right now,” Adams said. “We need a national response to this issue.”

In Sunset Park, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the shooting took place, residents started their day to the sound of sirens and police helicopters flying overhead. Several schools were placed on lockdown for hours as a precaution.

At Sunset Park High School, students banged on windows and called out as reporters and police officers walked by, shouting that they had no idea when they would be released. Some made makeshift signs and taped them to the window: “Have hope,” “Make NYC safe again.”

The shooting will not only ignite fears over rising crime but also sharpen the debate over how to solve the problem. Hochul and Adams recently pushed to give judges more discretion in setting bail for a larger number of offenses, rolling back landmark legislation on bail reform passed in 2019. The move was highly contentious: Some Republicans and conservative Democrats said the changes did not go far enough, while liberal Democrats called them unnecessary, noting that the data does not show that the bail reform law has fueled the increase in crime.

Marcela Mitaynes, a member of the New York State Assembly who represents Sunset Park as well as nearby Red Hook and parts of Bay Ridge, walked up and down Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue on Tuesday, checking in on her constituents.

“There is certainly a lot of talk about crime being on the rise, and our safety, and I can certainly understand that,” she said. “But this is nothing near what this neighborhood was like when I was growing up in the late ’70s and the ’80s.”

Mitaynes (D) urged policymakers to “have a larger conversation about how we’re going to tackle it instead of just preying on people’s fears.” And that “really means investing in our community,” not just increasing police funding, she said. “We’ve done that over and over and over.”

The increase in crime in the city’s transportation system — up 65 percent this year compared with the same time in 2021 — is especially troubling as New York urges workers to return to the office and tourists to resume their visits.

Assaults on transit workers have also increased significantly, said John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents New York subway employees.

“Tomorrow there will be a transit worker assaulted in the New York City subway system, those are the odds,” he said, noting that about five such assaults are taking place each week, mostly on weekdays. “The only way to stop that is a uniformed police presence.”

For New Yorkers like Kelly Serrano, 39, a medical student, the city has changed dramatically. On Tuesday morning, she had just dropped her daughter off at school when she saw crowds of people rushing out of the subway, some of them crying and screaming that there was blood on the platform. Serrano spoke with one distraught woman and tried to calm her down.

Serrano was born in Honduras but has lived in the city for more than two decades. She takes the subway every day but doesn’t feel safe. “Everything is getting crazier,” she said. “I feel like it’s a very scary place to live now.”

Lila Hassan contributed to this report.

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