The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A specter rises from the rhetoric of the 1970s: Scary NYC subways

New York Police Department officers enter a subway at a station in New York on May 25. (Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg News)

There was a time when New York City was hopelessly crime-ridden, unfailingly dangerous and generally a blight on the Atlantic seaboard.

That time is not now, despite what you might have seen on Fox News.

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It is true that crime has risen in the city, both over the past year and over the past several years. While the number of murders is down, violent crime overall is up 30 percent. But, as is the case with other places where crime has measurably increased, crime is still nowhere near what it was 30 years ago.

This is admittedly little consolation for victims of that crime, but it is worth noting in the context of rhetoric about crime. Over the past month, Fox News has run story after story after story about crime in New York, often focusing on the city’s subways. A search of the network’s website shows nearly 200 stories mentioning the city and the subway system over the past month alone. Few, if any, of them are about ridership. Instead they focus on the relentless dangers subway riders purportedly face.

There are two reasons for this focus.

The first is that there have been alarming incidents of crime on the subway in recent weeks. As CNN’s John Miller put it last month, these “have a significant impact on the system and the psyche of its riders.” That’s particularly true given how tabloids like the New York Post have seized on such stories; its website has run nearly 1,000 stories mentioning the subway in the past month.

Then there’s the other reason: the long-standing role the New York subway has played in the public conversation about crime. When Bernard Goetz shot four young Black men who he said were trying to rob him on the train, it triggered a national debate about both race and responses to crime. When subway cars went from graffiti-covered to sparkling, it was hailed as a measure of how the city had finally begun reversing its high-profile crime problem. And this is setting aside the role played by “The Warriors.”

The most recent monthly data on crime in the subway system is for September. If we compare September to the same month in the prior four years, we see a pattern: a surge in criminal complaints in 2020 that has faded since. Crime (overall and the subset of violent crimes) were up over September 2019 but down relative to the first year of the pandemic.

That’s one month compared over time. CNN’s Miller notes that, year-to-date, subway crime is actually lower than it was in 2018 or 2019, albeit only slightly.

The rise in crime seen at the outset of the pandemic is probably in part a function of the concomitant decline in subway ridership. In September 2022, the average weekday ridership was down 41 percent relative to September 2019. In September 2020, though, it was down 72 percent. Ridership has a relationship to crime in that less-crowded trains and platforms are easier targets for criminal activity. As The Washington Post’s Justin George wrote in April, “empty stations and trains have created spaces where criminals feel emboldened, transit researchers say. In turn, crime increases dissuade new customers from entering stations.”

As we’ve noted in other contexts, Fox News’s recent coverage of crime has not been linked to actual criminal activity. This year, the network has repeatedly been far more likely to talk about crime on the subway compared to its two primary competitors, CNN or MSNBC. That includes a huge spike in October.

Investigative reporter Radley Balko, author of the newsletter “The Watch,” recently compared data on crime in New York City to crime in Oklahoma. “Fearmongering works,” he wrote, noting that Oklahomans were much less likely to point to crime as a problem than New Yorkers, despite having a higher crime rate. (This was recently a focus of a gubernatorial debate in the former state.) He then shared a number of responses — many centered on the subway as a marker of New York’s rampant crime.

Balko pointed out that one was at far, far more risk of dying in a car accident than being killed on the subway. But the exchange was telling. The subway is all-but-unique to New York in the American imagination, so whatever horrible thing occurs there is similarly entwined with the city — and its leadership and its politics and its demography. Grainy cable-news coverage of a crime on a subway is a visual shorthand for all of that, the sort of shorthand that doesn’t follow from footage of a random assault on the street.

Every article of this sort must necessarily include the disclaimer that any violent crime is bad and that contextualizing it is not excusing it. Such disclaimers are necessary precisely because incidents of crime are used to build visceral narratives about safety. Conservative outlets are covering crime so much because the midterm elections are looming. They are trying to apply the emotional response of seeing horrible crimes to the political conversation — and trying to frame criticism of that behavior as itself sympathetic to criminals.

As Balko said, fearmongering works.

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