Why the National Guard Won’t Make the Subways Safer


The millions of people who crowd into New York City’s busiest subway stations every day have recently encountered a sight reminiscent of a frightening, bygone era: National Guard troops with long guns patrolling platforms and checking bags.

After 9/11 and at moments of high alert in the years since, New York deployed soldiers in the subway to deter would-be terrorists and reassure the public that the transit system was safe from attack. The National Guard is now there for a different reason. Earlier this week, Governor Kathy Hochul sent 1,000 state police officers and National Guard troops into the city’s underground labyrinth not to scour for bombs but to combat far more ordinary crime—a recent spate of assaults, thefts, and stabbings, including against transit workers.

The order, which Hochul issued independently of the city’s mayor, Eric Adams, prompted immediate criticism. Progressives accused her of militarizing the subways and validating Republican exaggerations about a spike in crime, potentially making people even more fearful of using public transit. Law-enforcement advocates, a group that typically supports a robust show of force, didn’t like the idea either.

“I would describe it as the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage,” William Bratton, who led the police departments of New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, told me. “It will actually do nothing to stop the flow of blood, because it’s not going to the source of where the blood is coming from.”

Bratton’s success in reducing subway crime as the chief of New York City’s transit police in the early 1990s led then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to appoint him as NYPD commissioner. He returned to the post under a much different mayor, Democrat Bill de Blasio, nearly two decades later. During a 40-minute phone interview yesterday, Bratton acknowledged that many New Yorkers perceive subway crime to be more pervasive than it really is; rates of violent crime in New York City (and many other urban centers) have come down since the early months of pandemic and are much lower than they were in 1990, when he took over the transit police.

Bratton is most famous—and, in the minds of many, notorious—as a practitioner of the “broken windows” theory of policing, which calls for aggressive enforcement of minor crime as a precondition for tackling more serious offenses. The idea has been widely criticized for being racially discriminatory and contributing to mass incarceration. But Bratton remains a strong proponent.

He blamed the fact that crime remains unacceptably high for many people—and for politicians in an election year—on a culture of leniency brought on by well-intentioned criminal-justice reformers. Changes to the bail system that were enacted in 2019—some of which have been scaled back—have made it harder to keep convicted criminals off the streets, Bratton said, while city leaders are more reluctant to forcibly remove homeless people who resist intervention due to mental illness. Bratton said that police officers are less likely to arrest people for fare evasion, which leads to more serious infractions. “We are not punishing people for inappropriate behavior,” Bratton said.

The subways need more police officers, Bratton said, and Adams had already announced a deployment of an additional 1,000 last month. But an influx of National Guard troops won’t be as effective, he argued. They can’t arrest people, and the items they are looking for in bags—explosive devices and guns, mainly—aren’t the source of most subway crime. The highest-profile incidents have involved small knives or assailants who pushed people onto the subway tracks. “What are the bag checks actually going to accomplish?” he asked. “The deterrence really is not there.”

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Russell Berman: What did you think of the governor’s decision to send the National Guard and the state police into the subways?

William Bratton: I would describe it basically as a public-relations initiative that is the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage. It will actually do nothing to stop the flow of blood, because it’s not going to the source of where the blood is coming from.

The problem with crime in the subways, as with crime in the streets, is the idea that we are not punishing people for inappropriate behavior, whether it’s as simple as a fare evasion or something more significant—assaults and robberies and, in some instances, murders.

The presence of the National Guard in the subway system is not needed, not necessary; nor are, for that matter, state troopers. The NYPD and the MTA are fully capable of policing the subways and the train systems.

Berman: This is going to remind people of what New York was like in the months and years after 9/11, when you routinely saw National Guard troops doing bag checks in busy stations. Was it more effective to do that then, because people were worried about what was in those bags? Now they are more worried about other things.

Bratton: That was appropriate then. People understood that what the National Guard was looking for in that era were bombs. So the bag checks made sense. It wasn’t so much the level of crime in the subways. What they were fearful of was terrorists, so the use of the National Guard for that purpose was appropriate at that time.

What is the problem in terms of crime in the subway? It is the actions of the mentally ill, who have been involved in assaults and shoving people onto the tracks. It is the actions of a relatively small number of repeat criminals. And what are the bag checks actually going to accomplish? If you are carrying a gun, if you’re carrying a knife, you walk downstairs and see a bag check, you’re going to walk back up the stairs and down the block and go in another entrance and go right on through. So the deterrence is really not there.

Berman: Did those bag checks back then after 9/11 ever find anything significant, or was it mostly for making people feel like someone was watching?

Bratton: I’m not aware that anything was ever detected. Might something have been deterred? Possibly somebody who was coming into the subway with a device and decides, Well, I’m not going to do it after all. But I can’t say with any certainty or knowledge.

Berman: Governor Hochul is also proposing a bill that would allow judges to ban anyone from the public-transit system who has been convicted of assault within the system. What do you make of that?

Bratton: It would be difficult to enforce. They’d be banned from the system, but if they’re on the system behaving themselves, who’s going to know?

Berman: Earlier you mentioned that law enforcement should be punishing fare evasion more than they do. When people hear that, they might think of the “broken windows” theory of policing. These people aren’t necessarily violent; they’re just jumping the gate. Is your argument that you’re trying to address higher-level crime by prosecuting lower-level crime?

Bratton: “Broken windows” is correcting the behavior when it’s at a minor stage before it becomes more serious. Somebody who’s not paying their fare might be coming into the subway system with some type of weapon. Oftentimes they’re coming into the system to commit a crime—or, if they encounter a situation in the subway, out comes a box cutter, out comes the knife, out comes the gun. The situation escalates.

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