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In Emptier Subways, Violent Crime Is Rising

Reports of homicides, rapes and burglaries are posing another challenge to regaining the confidence of passengers during the pandemic.

When the coronavirus shuttered much of New York in the spring, subway ridership plunged. Credit...Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

It began in the early days of the pandemic in March, when someone lit a fire inside a subway car that killed the train operator and injured 16 others. In the following months, nearly 500 subway car windows were smashed on the No. 7 line. In August, a man tackled and tried to sexually assault a young woman at a station on the Upper East Side. And in September, a train derailed after a man threw metal clamps that he had stolen onto the tracks.

When the pandemic hit New York and subway ridership plunged, misdemeanor and felony crimes dropped to record lows: Between January and the end of September, the number of reported crimes in the system fell roughly 40 percent compared with the same period last year.

But even as overall crime has declined, violent crime and episodes of vandalism are rising, a trend that is stoking fear among passengers and posing another challenge for a transit system crippled by a virus outbreak that has deprived it of riders and money.

So far this year, the number of reported homicides, rapes, burglaries and robberies in the subway are higher than during the same period last year, according to Police Department statistics. Incidents of vandalism have also spiked, transit officials say.

The subway is still far safer than during the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, when violence on the graffiti-filled system was rampant and riders feared riding at night or in empty cars. But after two decades of steady declines in felonies, the recent uptick in major crimes — several of which have been captured on video and circulated on Twitter — has fed a perception among many riders that the system is slipping back into disorder.

While a drop in ridership has helped push down some petty crimes, in other cases it may have helped lead to other violent acts because there are fewer witnesses, transit officials said. Credit...Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

That negative image comes at a moment when the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the subway, is desperate to win back riders as it grapples with the worst financial crisis in its history and tries to recover fare revenue that practically vanished overnight.

“It’s more important than ever that riders feel safe getting back on the system. They shouldn’t feel like they are risking their health, and they should also know they are not risking their life. There was some sense of safety riders got when it was more crowded and there were more eyes in the system. Now stations and train cars have fewer people."

said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the M.T.A., a watchdog group.

So far this year, homicides have reached their highest level in three years: Six people have been killed in the subway, compared with two in all of last year, one in 2018 and none in 2017. Five rapes have been reported this year, compared with two last year.

Robberies have risen 16 percent, to at least 457 so this year, compared with 394 during the same period last year. The number of burglaries, including breaking into shops on platforms, stands at 22 so far this year, compared with five in the same period last year. And acts of vandalism have spiked 24 percent to 868 so far this year, compared with 702 last year, according to the transit agency.

Police officials have cautioned against being overly alarmist, noting that crime is nowhere near as bad as it was in decades past, when violence plagued the entire city, including the subway. In 1990, for example, there were 26 homicides in the system.

“We have these high-profile crimes on occasion, but that does not define the system. We are not going to tolerate lawlessness in the subway system.”

Edward Delatorre, the transit police chief, said.

As many as 60 Metropolitan Transportation Authority police officers and 300 city police officers patrol the system at any given time. Credit...Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

The drop in ridership during the pandemic has helped push down overall crime. Today, ridership is around 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

But while fewer riders has meant fewer possible targets for petty crimes — like sleeping passengers victimized by pickpockets — it has also meant that criminals may feel emboldened because there are fewer potential witnesses.

“It’s a reflection of what’s happening in the city generally, and it’s a reflection of the system having been more empty than we’ve seen it in a long time.”

said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit.

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