A Spike in Violence on the NYC Subway Preceeded the N Train Shooting

  • New York City subway crime is up over 70% from last year.
  • Experts told Insider early this month that pandemic-related hardships could be behind it.
  • The situation could get worse before it gets better, they said.

In New York City, where more than 3 million people ride the subway, the occasional run-in with crime on the subway is not uncommon and most often results in little more than temporary discomfort.

But in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s mass shooting aboard an N train in Brooklyn, it seemed especially hard to avoid witnessing more serious offenses — like harassment, assault, or worse — during daily commutes.

As of April 1, subway crime was up more than 70% year to date. On Wednesday, it was up 68%

Experts told Insider at the time that a perfect storm of COVID-related hardships and a long-running lack of care for the city’s unhoused and mentally-ill residents could be behind the surge.

With incoming warmer weather and a recent effort to demolish homeless encampments in the city, the problem may get worse before it gets better, Christopher Herrmann, a former crime analyst supervisor with the New York City Police Department, told Insider.

“I think this goes back to all the pandemic kind-of mental health-related stressors,” Herrmann said in early April, of what could be triggering the increase in violent behavior.

Concerns about rising subway crime came to a head just before 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, when a man that police have now identified as Frank James put on a gas mask, opened a canister that filled the train with smoke, and then opened fire inside the Manhattan-bound train and on the platform at the 36th Street Station in Brooklyn.

More than two dozen people were injured, including 10 who were struck by gunfire. Others were injured trying to flee the busy station.

The shooting followed other high-profile, violent attacks

Poverty and untreated mental health issues are both inextricably linked to crime, and so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise when there are spikes in certain kinds of crime given the last two years, Herrman previously told Insider.

Herrmann said that there has been a noticeable jump in higher-profile violent crime on the subway.

In January, a woman was killed when she was pushed in front of an R train at 42nd street. Last month, a woman was struck 14 times with a hammer at the Queens Plaza subway station and critically injured. This week, there were several reports of commuters being terrorized by knife-wielding riders.

Additionally, there’s also been a rise in the more typical subway crime: misdemeanor assaults, forceable touching, and harassment.

“The reality is, you still have a lot of people wearing masks, which is a good thing in the case of not spreading and not getting COVID, but it also helps people anonymize themselves to an extent.” Herrmann said.  “They feel a little more emboldened because, ‘Hey, even if I’m caught on camera, like they can’t really see my face or they can only see a little part of my face.”

Herrmann believes that also factors into the spike in carjackings in New York, jumping 55% from 2020 to 2021.

“Pre-pandemic, if you saw a guy with a mask coming towards your car, you’d probably get the hell out of there. But now that masks are the norm, it’s become difficult to tell who the good guy is and who the bad guy.”

Dorothy Schulz, a retired captain with the Metro-North Commuter Railroad Police Department and professor at John Jay College, told Insider earlier this month that the prevalence of violence on the trains could also be a result of the rebounding of subway ridership following the pandemic.

When the city was in lockdown, or people were opting to work primarily from home, the subway ridership plummeted. During that time, unhoused people using the stations or trains for shelter were no longer forced to take up as little space as possible.

“I don’t say it in a blame-worthy way, the homeless have always been there,” she said. “It was just when other ridership plunged so dramatically that they became much more visible, they were able to spread out.”

Now that ridership bounced back, there are more conflicts involving these men and women, who tend to suffer from behavioral health conditions.

Unhoused riders are not only people responsible for engaging in assaults or other criminal activity on subways, and are often the victims of violent crime in New York.

While law-enforcement have not identified a motive for Tuesday’s shooting, James’ posted many hate-filled tirades on his Youtube channel. Among them, were rants about homeless riders on New York City subways.

“Every car I went to wa[s] loaded with homeless people. It was so bad, I couldn’t even stand,” James said of the subway in a Youtube video that has since been removed.

After rambling on about the situation, which be blamed on New York Mayor Eric Adams, James said: “And so the message to me is: I should have gotten a gun, and just started shooting motherf—ers.,” FBI Special Agent Jorge Alvarez wrote in the affidavit.

Posters near the site of where a homeless man was shot in New York City.

 

Posters near the site of where a homeless man was shot in New York City.

Katie Balevic/Insider

Untreated behavioral health conditions and a lack of housing

To address perceptions that New York City has grown unsafe, Mayor Eric Adams has attempted to clear out the city’s homeless populations from both the subway system and encampments around the city.

With the goal of getting these city residents into housing and off the street, the mayor released a “subway safety plan,”  which calls for the creation of  joint response teams that bring together mental health care providers, the department of health, and police. It also involves the training of NYPD officers to enforce transit system rules, and expanding the city’s crisis response program “B-HEARD.”

B-HEARD is a pilot program that sends social workers to respond to crisis calls in-lieu of or with police.

While the moves have been touted as a way to both cut down on crime and finding treatment and housing for those who need it, it’s not a simple task.

The New York Times reported that city sanitation workers and police destroyed 239 encampments in 12 days, but only five of the people living there agreed to go to shelters.

The city’s efforts in the subways have also struggled.

In February, around 80 unhoused subway riders approached by city workers agreed to be placed in shelters, but by the end of the month more than two-thirds had already left their placements, the Times reported.

“Now that the mayor did all these homeless encampment ‘cleanups,’  — I guess we’ll call it — I’m kind of curious if that is going to, again, push more homeless people into the subway system, which is typically the norm.” Herrmann said to Insider. “And then, again, are we going to see mental health/homelessness-related subway crime go up even more as a result?”

New York Mayor Eric Adams during a news conference at a Manhattan subway station where the two politicians announced a new plan to fight homelessness in New York on January 06, 2022 in New York City.

 

New York Mayor Eric Adams during a news conference on January 06, 2022.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Is respite coming?

In a press conference last month, Adams said that programs like these won’t see success overnight, and compared his efforts to the first inning of a “nine-inning game.”

“And when this game is over, we’re going to have a city far better than the dysfunctional city that we’ve witnessed for far too long,” he said.

It’s not just subway crime that’s up in New York City. Aside from murder and rape, which are down, other violent crime is up from this time last year.

Herrmann told Insider that as the weather warms, it will likely stay the same or get worse — as is the case every summer.

“There’s definitely a lot of violence in the air, and again we’re getting the warmer weather now, which is not good,” he said.

In warmer months, there are more people outdoors, more young people on school break, and an increase in alcohol use on the streets.

“All those things fuel the wave of violence that we experience every summer,” he said.

This story was initially published on April 1 and updated on April 13.

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