No one has to tell Raoul Rivas that the subway is more dangerous these days.
He has the scars to prove it: nine shiny silver staples running down his side following a stranger’s unprovoked attack.
Mr. Rivas, 37, a construction worker, and his girlfriend were riding a train home from Lower Manhattan last month when he said a man screamed at them for no reason. As they got off the train in the Bronx, the man rushed forward with a knife, stabbing Mr. Rivas five times.
“People don’t get it, this is real,” he said. “I never thought I was going to be a victim, but things happen. Thank God I’m here.”
Though crime is always a possibility on the New York City subway, a recent rash of particularly vicious attacks on riders and transit workers has fueled fears that the sprawling underground system — a mainstay of urban life — is more dangerous than it has been in years and threatens to undermine the city’s recovery.
City officials and transit leaders have clashed over whether subway crime has actually gotten worse — the available data shows a mixed picture — or whether it is mostly a perception fed by a relentless beat of headlines and news alerts about subway violence that have scared many riders.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has come under intense pressure from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and transit officials to do more to keep riders and workers safe, announced on Monday that he would deploy 250 more police officers to the subway.
That adds to the more than 3,000 officers already patrolling the subway system, making up the largest force in the system in 25 years, according to Mr. de Blasio. About 80 auxiliary officers — unarmed but trained volunteers — have also been assigned to the 20 busiest subway stations.
Still, the mayor and city police officials insist that the subway is safe and that worries about crime are overblown. But officials from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subways, have demanded more police officers and resources to help homeless and mentally ill people who seek refuge on the subways.
The issue has taken on political overtones, pitting Mr. de Blasio against his rival, Mr. Cuomo, who controls the M.T.A. and is responsible for the subways — and has declared that riders are frightened to take them. “I think we have been underpoliced for quite some time,” the governor, who almost never takes the subway, told reporters on Monday.
Subway crime has also emerged as a prominent issue in the city’s mayoral race, with leading Democratic candidates voicing concerns about it during a recent debate, though they split over whether more officers were needed.
Some riders have described being assaulted, harassed or menaced by strangers. Others have started carrying Mace and waiting by security cameras. Many have found themselves in deserted cars and stations, glancing nervously over their shoulders. Some no longer ride at night or off hours.
Comparing the current level of crime to past years is difficult given the very low ridership during the pandemic. But one measure is the crime rate, or the number of crimes per million people.
During the first three months of this year there were 1.63 felonies, which include murders, rapes and assaults, for every million riders. That was up from the 1.48 felonies per million riders in the same period in 2020, and significantly higher than the 1.06 felonies per million for all of 2019, according to an M.T.A. analysis.
And the total number of assaults during the first quarter of this year was higher than it has been in over two decades. On Friday, a group of men slashed three riders and punched a fourth person.
The fears about subway safety are the latest blow to a transit system central to the city’s recovery. The crowds that once packed the subway have thinned, along with a sense of security that comes from having more eyes and bodies to deter crimes of opportunity.
Though ridership has started to pick up, the subway still carries less than half the riders it did before the pandemic as many people continue to work from home, often in the suburbs.
Of course, some city residents like Jane Burn, 51, of Brooklyn, still take the subway without hesitation. “I’ve been riding the subway throughout, without reservation,” she said.
But the perception that the subways are more dangerous could make other riders reluctant to return and impede New York’s efforts to restart its economy, which includes reopening offices in Manhattan where a majority of workers rely on transit.
“I don’t think there’s any question that fear of crime is way up,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group, who cited concerns about subway safety as one of the biggest obstacles for companies trying to bring back workers. “You can’t reopen offices if people aren’t comfortable taking mass transit.”
The subway attacks come amid an uptick in gun violence around the city, including a recent high-profile shooting in Times Square that left three people, one of them a 4-year-old girl, injured.
Sarah Feinberg, the interim subway chief and a close Cuomo ally, believes more police officers and resources are needed until riders return in large enough numbers to reach a “tipping point” that will make the system safer for everyone. “It’s what do we do between now and then,” she said in a television interview.
The low ridership is likely to have contributed to a lower total of major felonies — murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary and grand larceny — reported from January through March.
There were 335 major felonies this year, compared with 697 during the same time in 2020 and 559 in 2019, according to police statistics. During a higher-crime era, the numbers were a lot higher, with 1,449 major felonies in the first quarter of 1997.
Four murders have been reported in the subway system this year as of the beginning of May, compared with six murders in the subway for all of last year and three murders in 2019.
Kathleen O’Reilly, the Police Department’s transit bureau chief, has criticized what she calls “continued fearmongering.”
“It’s a disservice to New Yorkers to advance a narrative that crime is soaring in the subways when it’s simply not the case,” she told transit officials at an agency board meeting in April.
While she took the concerns seriously, Chief O’Reilly said in an interview that a vast majority of riders in the vast system get safely from Point A to Point B.
Still, the number of felony assaults have increased this year to their highest number since 1998, with 119 assaults in the first three months compared with 106 assaults for the same time in 2020 and 91 assaults in 2019.
And the targeting of Asians, which has taken place across the country, has also become an issue in the subway. Seven incidents of subway hate crimes against Asians were reported this year as of early April compared with none the year before.
Ben Smith, 27, a video producer who was adopted from China, said he was riding a train in Queens recently when a man chanted an anti-Asian slur and told him that he enjoyed shooting Asian people. “Now when I go on the subway I do have to look both ways and to make sure that there isn’t going to be some sort of escalation,” Mr. Smith said.
M.T.A. leaders have sought to explain the anxiety over subway safety by pointing out that the crime rate is high even as ridership has plummeted. Average weekday ridership is currently about 2.1 million daily riders compared with 5.4 million riders before the pandemic.
The crime rate provides a more accurate assessment of subway safety since crime numbers would be expected to drop with fewer riders, said Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Based on the current rate, he said, riders had an increased likelihood of becoming victims — though it is still extremely unlikely.
Rosemary Menezes, 73, a retired house cleaner who has been a regular rider for years, said she no longer feels safe and recently fled a train when a man started screaming at riders and reached inside his jacket. “You never know if they have a gun, if they have a knife,” she said. “I haven’t seen so much crime like this, it’s ridiculous, I have to be very careful.”
The outcry over subway safety has also spurred a back-and-forth among elected leaders over who would take the subway right now — and who wouldn’t. Mr. Cuomo, who has three daughters, suggested that he would not tell his children to ride the subway.
Mr. de Blasio said he would not have a problem taking the subway, even though he has done so infrequently during his nearly eight years in office.
“As a real New Yorker who lives in the city and has taken the subway all my life, I wouldn’t hesitate at all to take the subway,” he said. “My children take the subway all the time. If you said to one of my kids, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t go on the subway, it’s not safe,’ they would laugh you out of the room.”
Many riders — including many people of color who work in low-paid service jobs — have no choice but to keep taking the subway and have adopted defensive subway routines.
Maria Otten, a billing coordinator from the Bronx, has started carrying Mace in her purse. “I’m a New Yorker,’’ she said. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen the trains.”
Another rider, Pamela Navarro, 35, a fashion stylist, said she waits for trains in view of a security camera or near the station entrance in case she needs to make a quick exit. “After hearing stories of people getting attacked, I’m more vigilant,” she said. “I’m not scared of taking the subway, but I take my precautions, that’s for sure.”
But Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group, said there would be safety in numbers as more riders return.
The debate over subway safety is counterproductive, he added, because it only gives riders a reason to stay away and takes attention away from other pressing issues such as improving subway service and reliability that are more important to the system’s recovery.
“By constantly calling into question the subway’s safety, they risk scaring riders away,” Mr. Pearlstein said. “And that in itself makes the subway less safe for the people who depend on it daily.”
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