New York State Attorney General Letitia James is opening an investigation into the NYPD's enforcement of fare evasion, citing a pattern of "deeply troublesome conduct" that suggests to her that cops may be targeting riders based on race.
The inquiry was announced in a letter sent on Monday to Police Commissioner Dermot Shea. It gives the department until February 10th to produce a range of data on their policing of farebeaters, including the number of cops assigned to each station and the demographic breakdown of arrestees—information that the NYPD has been reluctant to hand over in the past.
“If groups of New Yorkers have been unfairly targeted because of the color of their skin, my office will not hesitate to take legal action," James said in a statement.
The data that does exist reveals a sharp racial disparity in enforcement, prompting comparisons to the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, which was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2013.
Between October 2017 and June 2019, black and Hispanic New Yorkers made up almost 70 percent of all civil summonses and nearly 90 percent of arrests for fare evasion. More detailed reporting on those stops, as required by city law, has been routinely withheld by the NYPD, leading to a state lawsuit last year that the department lost.
The AG's letter also makes reference to sworn statements from multiple current and former NYPD officers who allege that Deputy Inspector Constantin Tsachas, currently the second-in-command of Brooklyn's transit policing bureau, explicitly directed officers to target black and Latino men for farebeating.
Secretly recorded audio has previously shown Tsachas berating an officer for "not targeting those people," seemingly in reference to men of color. The city investigated Tsachas and found no wrongdoing.
Civil rights advocates have long noted the racial discrepancies in subway policing. But tensions reached a boiling point in recent months, as a more visible police presence in the subway led to a series of widely publicized altercations, in which officers were seen pointing guns at a teenager, arresting churro vendors, and tackling New Yorkers for the crime of fare evasion.
Over impassioned protests, and skepticism from some MTA board members and much of New York's Congressional delegation, Governor Andrew Cuomo successfully pushed through the permanent hiring of 500 new MTA police officers in December, at an estimated cost of $249 million over five years.
Roughly 140 of the 500 new MTA officers will be sworn in next month; the vast majority of those officers will be "lateral transfers" from the NYPD, according to an MTA spokesperson. The MTA’s budget proposal states that the new cops would be hired “mainly to support fare evasion and homelessness outreach mitigation efforts.”
Before boarding a plane to survey earthquake damage in Puerto Rico on Tuesday morning, Governor Cuomo addressed the attorney general's investigation.
"I feel a tension in the NYPD relationship with the community that they serve that I think is probably as bad as anything I've seen in my lifetime," Cuomo told reporters. "The police community relationship relies on trust, and respect, and we have seen incidents, viral videos, where there is a lack of respect and a tension between the NYPD and the community that hurts both."
He did not elaborate on how the plan to increase the number of MTA police officers by 64 percent—using cops primarily culled from NYPD ranks, but who are not required to wear body cameras—would address that problem.
In a short statement, MTA Senior Advisor Ken Lovett said the agency would assist with the investigation, describing fare evasion as "a $300 million annual problem that should be addressed in a way that does not unjustly target any specific group or community."
A spokesperson for the NYPD, Devora Kaye, flatly denied that there was anything wrong with officers' current enforcement practices.
“The NYPD’s transit officers patrol day and night to keep six million daily riders safe and enforce the law fairly and equally without consideration of race or ethnicity,” she said.