tracking you

Subway Surveillance Cameras Turned Toward the Homeless

A security camera at the 42nd Street subway station, Oct. 1, 2019.
A security camera at the 42nd Street subway station, Oct. 1, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

The NYPD has begun monitoring more than 100 live camera feeds at a dozen subway stations as part of what City Hall calls ramped-up efforts to address homelessness.

The round-the-clock program is run out of a new “Joint Crisis Coordination Center” in downtown Brooklyn, where cops watch screens with alternating views of stations and platforms. Department of Homeless Services workers are set to join officers in the coming weeks, police officials said.

“The intent was to be able to leverage our technology to be able to view many stations at one time with a couple of officers who are skilled and seasoned and would know what we’re looking at,” NYPD Chief of Transit Edward Delatorre said. “Probably the people who are going to benefit the most are people who are outstretched in our stations and undomiciled.”

The monitoring program, which has drawn concern from civil liberties and homeless advocates, comes amid a renewed focus on vulnerable people seeking shelter underground. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently vowed to hire an additional 500 MTA police officers to address a raft of issues, including fare evasion.

NYPD officials declined to identify the stations currently monitored, saying they’re picked based on a history of “quality of life” issues. The stations watched can change, and cameras will be added in areas where needed, officials said.

While the NYPD already has access to the MTA’s expanding network of more than 5,000 cameras, it typically comes only when specific footage is requested after a crime.

The NYPD also periodically monitors live subway feeds — including for major events, like the 2015 visit by Pope Francis. But police officials say this is the first time they’ve set up 24/7 eyes on the subway system at a centralized site.

‘More Sticks Than Carrots’

NYPD officials say the bulk of the roughly 120 incidents they’ve responded to in the first several weeks since the launch of the coordination center have been for so-called quality-of-life issues.

This includes waking up a passenger who was sleeping on a platform — and potentially vulnerable to becoming a crime victim, they say.

Officials also described a series of interactions with a 60-year-old woman who was seen stretched out at a Manhattan subway station on Sept. 26.

A person sleeps at the Jamaica Center station, Oct. 2, 2019.
A person sleeps at the Jamaica Center station, Oct. 2, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Police said they responded that day and discovered the woman, who had a bed in a homeless shelter, had an open warrant. They arrested her and brought her to court.

The cameras caught the same woman laid out at the same station two days later. This time, she was given a summons and removed from the station, police said.

The next day, after seeing her again via the live feed, police approached the woman as she began having an apparent seizure. Police officials said cops immediately took her to a hospital.

While she credited the police for intervening in the woman’s medical crisis, Homeless Services United Director Catherine Trapani said a lack of permanent housing is at the root of the growing homeless crisis.

“It did give them an excuse to interact over and over [with her], but it sounds like there were more sticks than carrots,” said Trapani. “She was taken to a hospital and thank goodness. But what happens when she’s discharged? Where are they going to send her?”

Pushback from Advocates

The monitoring center’s launch stemmed from an Aug. 22 City Hall announcement of a series of steps introduced or expanded over the summer to tackle homelessness in the subway system.

The center pairs with another new effort, unveiled in June by Mayor Bill de Blasio: A “diversion” pilot program that offers “unsheltered homeless” people who violate the MTA’s code of conduct an opportunity to connect with a social services provider, rather than getting a summons.

The pilot saw 70 of more than 200 people approached over the course of nearly two months accept an offer of health or social services instead of a fine, police officials said. The Aug. 22 announcement declared the program successful enough to expand citywide.

Officials also said at the time they were increasing joint canvassing and outreach efforts in the subway system by the NYPD and DHS staffers.

The measures, however, have spurred pushback from elected officials, privacy watchdogs and homeless advocates — in part for the prominent role being played by the NYPD.

“The city has a long and not very proud history of looking to law enforcement to solve social problems that call for resources and social services,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s time for New York City to recognize that we have a housing crisis and get serious about building affordable housing and supportive housing for the most vulnerable New Yorkers — not building command centers full of TV surveillance.”

Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyln) said even when the outreach teams or police officers are able to engage a homeless person, they don’t always have a place to take them.

Skipping out on the subway fare is referred to as a “quality-of-life” crime by the NYPD.
Skipping out on the subway fare is referred to as a “quality-of-life” crime by the NYPD. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

“Most people that are living on the street are known to the street outreach teams,” said Levin, chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee. “The reason they continue to live on the street is we haven’t made the connection or offered them the right resources or have the right system in place to get them to come in. It’s a question mostly of resources.”

The city’s efforts have intertwined with an intense focus by Cuomo and the MTA this summer on homelessness and hygiene issues in the subways — as well as crime.

Cuomo announced in June that the MTA would put an additional 500 uniformed officers from various agencies in the subway system “to improve public safety, protect workers and combat fare evasion.” The surge came from redeployments, MTA officials said, including about 100 NYPD officers.

Still Waiting for Task Force

On July 24, the MTA announced that it was launching a task force charged with “measurably” reducing homelessness and panhandling on the subways “by the end of this year.”

The move came a day after State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released an audit that found significant deficiencies in the outreach to homeless people in the subway system, under MTA contracts with a social services provider.

To date, the MTA task force report hasn’t been publicly released, even though it was promised by late August.

Last month, Cuomo said the MTA would hire an additional 500 MTA police officers, making the summer surge permanent.

That announcement raised eyebrows over both the strategy and cost for the MTA, with the Citizens Budget Commission determining the move would exceed $260 million over four years. That calculation includes the price tag for benefits and the hiring of supervisors.

On Wednesday, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams criticized Cuomo, saying: “Sending additional police is not always the answer.”

MTA officials said the June surge of officers helped boost summonses for various violations by 44% for the year through August, compared to the same period in 2018.

Overall, summonses totaled 64,588 — well above the 44,910 logged in the first eight months of 2018. Most of the tickets were for fare evasion, officials said.

“It’s clear Jumaane Williams doesn’t know the facts: Assaults on MTA workers have increased by 39 percent this year and crime remains a serious issue,” said Abbey Collins, an MTA spokesperson. “The safety of our riders is our number one priority.”

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.