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Brooklyn Shooting Fuels Debate Over Whether Police Really Make Subways Safer

5 minute read

With no fatalities resulting from the mass shooting that took place in the New York City subway on Tuesday, and a suspected arrested after a more than 24-hour manhunt, it might seem that this particular incident is drawing to a close—but the impact it has on the city could be long-lasting.

This latest episode of violence has re-sparked an ongoing debate on the effectiveness of current law-enforcement approaches in preventing crime, particularly within New York City’s subway transportation system.

While authorities were still looking for the suspect, Mayor Eric Adams said that he would double up the number of transit officers who patrol the city’s subway stations, at least in the short term. The announcement didn’t come as a surprise to criminal-justice experts, as Adams has made his position on policing very clear during his early tenure as the city’s mayor. The mayor, a former police officer himself, campaigned on a law-and-order platform—including promises to increase law-enforcement presence on the subway system—and has said he is open to increasing the department’s budget.

Reassuring New Yorkers that the subway system is safe has been a priority for city leaders in recent months, as ridership has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels and crime on the subway has increased. (From 2019 to 2021, felony assaults on the subway were up about 25%, the New York Times reported earlier this year, even though fewer people overall were using the system.) In February, when Adams and New York Governor Kathy Hochul came forward with a controversial plan to stop people experiencing homelessness from sheltering in the subway system, they relied heavily on the police stationed in the mass-transit system to help enforce it. “As announced in early January, New Yorkers will continue to see an increased presence of NYPD officers in subway cars and on platforms, especially at high priority stations. More than 1,000 additional officers have already been deployed across the system,” the plan’s prospectus declared.

Read more: After Brooklyn Shooting, an Unsettling Day for Parents and Teachers

It’s unclear whether there were police officers present at the station when the shooting happened on Tuesday. But, given the general ubiquity of officers in the system, some New Yorkers and others questioned what the event—and the day it took to apprehend the suspect—said about their effectiveness.

Some experts are asking similar questions.

“There will be an increase of police presence in the subways, but not necessarily for a long term. This will be a typical reactive reaction to a major incident,” predicts Maria Haberfeld, a criminal-justice professor at John Jay College. “No matter how many officers you are going to deploy there is never enough to cover all the stations and trains.”

Right now, police officers in the New York City subway stations primarily focus on “deterrent patrol,” a term that refers to preventing crime in a specific target area. The work often involves arresting people who are involved in minor crimes like jumping the turnstiles.

Read more: Community Leaders Fear Eric Adams’ Plan to End Gun Violence Is Leaving the Public Out of ‘Public Safety’

One Brooklyn-based community police officer, who was granted anonymity for fear of reprisals at work, tells TIME that many officers prefer not to work in the train stations because they feel it’s a waste of time to arrest people for those minor crimes.

“We know how that looks to the public; it just creates more unnecessary tension,” the officer says.

Though some experts do believe that there is a benefit to having police officers in train stations—and a survey conducted last year by the MTA, the agency that runs the subways, found that most people who rode the subway felt safer seeing uniformed cops there—it may not be a concrete solution to addressing public safety.

“[The] physical presence of police officers will deter some criminal actors, but the ones who are determined to commit crimes will still find the way,” Haberfeld says. “However, from a perspective of optics and deterrence, albeit limited, it is important to have more officers.

And with more officers set to head underground, many of the city’s criminal-justice advocates are particularly concerned that the policy change may have a disproportionate effect on people of color and marginalized communities.

“Any time we see an act of violence that draws this much attention, we often see a doubling down in security culture. We’re addicted to that as a country. It makes us feel calm for the moment,” says Scott Roberts, the director of criminal justice campaigns at Color of Change, a civil-rights advocacy group. “What’s frightening is we know the ramifications are going to impact the communities that are already over-policed.”

Read more: There’s a Proven Way to Reduce Gun Violence in America’s Cities. We Just Need to Fund It

With so much attention on crime numbers increasing in New York City and across the country, activists and community leaders have called for more attention to the root causes of crime, with increased focus on factors such as housing, mental health, education, and economic opportunity.

As Roberts points out, law-enforcement measures are usually what city leaders and politicians turn to in the immediate aftermath of a high-profile gun violence attack like this. But, in his view, to really have an impact on crime, those measures will have a limited effect without combating the socioeconomic factors that influence crime.

“I think there’s leadership [in the country] that has the right ideas, but those ideas are pretty marginalized,” Roberts says. “I hope that leaders across the country who think they need to double up on security culture take a close look at what the issues are.”

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Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com