‘I Am Shaken’: Spate of Violent Subway Assaults Unnerves Riders


It was 2 p.m. Tuesday, which would normally have been a busy weekday as Thanksgiving drew near. Alex Weisman, a stage and television actor, got off a train at a subway station on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and was slapped twice in the face by a man who then fled.

The attack injured Mr. Weisman’s skull in two places and tore one of his retinas.

“I couldn’t have done anything else to protect myself,” said 33-year-old Weisman on Friday. “That shakes me.”

The day after the attack on Mr Weisman, a man at Bryant Park Station was pushed onto the tracks after arguing with another man whom police believe was a fraud. On Thursday, a woman was pushed off the platform at Union Square train station by an emotionally disturbed man who appeared to be homeless. She was lying between the tracks, avoiding serious injuries when a train passed over her.

The three attacks were part of a worrying trend: after metro crime fell significantly overall during the citywide lockdown this spring, violent crime has increased. So far this year, incidents of crime, rape, murder and robbery in the subway have exceeded the number of crimes committed in the same period last year.

Now that the financially troubled transit agency that operates the system is warning of major service cuts and price hikes if it does not receive substantial federal aid, the rise in crime has raised fears among drivers and the efforts of officials to get people back into the underground To lure the train made difficult.

In recent months, the agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is controlled by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, has criticized the New York City Police Department for not sending uniformed officers into the system.

The latest attacks have also led transit officials to urge the city to give more support to mentally ill people seeking protection on the subway.

“This city is currently in a mental health crisis,” Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit, told a news conference Thursday. “We have people in this town who are in desperate need of psychiatric care. I am desperate that this mayor or the next mayor will take over because we still have a long way to go. “

Police and transit officials say the subway is largely safe and that the recent surge in crime pales alongside the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s when trains were splattered with graffiti and rampant violence, a constant source of fear was among the drivers.

Both incidents have been arrested this week, and both suspects appear to be homeless and mentally ill, police said. Neither these attacks nor the one with Mr. Weisman were related, police said.

Videos of some attacks have been circulated on social media, alerting drivers, many of whom are already fearful of health concerns about using public transport during a pandemic.

“I think it’s bad standing over there at this point,” said Senance Johnson, 37, nodding to the edge of the platform at an L-Line stop in Brooklyn on Friday, “because a lot of people are being pressured. “

A video of the attack on Union Square shows the worst fear of many drivers in real time. Shortly before a train arrives at the station, a man pounces on a woman near him and lets her fly onto the tracks. Seconds later the oncoming train races over them when another driver holds his head and falls to the ground in disbelief.

The 40-year-old woman ended up in a small space between the tracks that prevented her from being hit by the train’s wheels, police said. The man who attacked her, Aditya Vemulapati, 24, surrendered to a transit worker and was taken into custody. He has been charged with attempted murder, assault and reckless endangerment, police said.

“By the grace of God she suffered only minor injuries,” Kathleen O’Reilly, chief of transit police, told reporters Thursday. “We see him waiting and calculating when the train arrives at the station, and at the right moment he pushed her onto the tracks.”

Police arrested a second man, Justin Pena, while driving at Bryant Park Station, on charges of attempted murder and reckless endangerment.

Hector Gonzalez, a maintenance technician from Manhattan who has lived in the city since 1983, said he feared New Yorkers with mental illness will be forced to seek refuge on the subway.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with violence, arbitrary violence,” Gonzalez said Friday as he waited for a train at Jay Street MetroTech station in Brooklyn. “I think it has to do with people who are not cared for.”

City officials say they provided more housing for those in need during the pandemic, which resulted in the subway being closed overnight for a thorough cleaning. Twelve hundred beds have been added for the homeless and other people who normally seek shelter in the system, and hundreds of outreach workers have been employed to provide services.

To date, it has accommodated nearly 600 people who were effectively living on the subway, said Steven Banks, the city’s social services officer.

“Anyone looking at the situation would say that the underground system has the lowest number of homeless people than any time in decades,” he said.

The rise in serious crime has been a stark turnaround since the spring when a citywide shutdown introduced to curb the spread of the coronavirus, drained the subway from 90 percent of its drivers, and toppled general crime in the system.

Police officers attributed the charge to fewer drivers targeting thieves and other relatively minor crimes. But the emptiness in the wards may have encouraged people who intended to commit more serious crimes and who felt safer with fewer possible witnesses, police officers said.

“Fewer drivers can certainly give way to certain crimes,” said Edward Delatorre, a former chief of transit police, in an interview last month. “A barren station or a shutdown could encourage certain crimes.”

The only subway crime that has reduced this is great theft, a trend that may reflect the decreased number of riders. In 2019, police recorded nearly 1,400 cases of grand theft, while in 2020 only 716 were recorded as of Sunday.

But other serious crimes have increased this year, even though the number of subway riders is still around 30 percent of prepandemic.

As of Sunday, 514 robberies had been registered, compared to 455 in the same period last year. There had been 294 criminal reports by the end of October, compared to 289 in the same period last year.

There have also been six murders so far this year, compared with three in the same period last year and five reports of rape, up from three last year.

In response to security concerns, the Transportation Authority hired 85 uniformed and unarmed security guards to patrol the subway and to call police if necessary in response to violent incidents. In addition, according to the authority, up to 60 police officers from the authority and 300 police officers from the city are on duty in the subway per shift.

Still, in recent months, many transit workers and drivers have worried that it was them see fewer offices in the subway.

Chef O’Reilly said the system had come back into focus in recent weeks.

Prior to the presidential election, “many of our transit resources were used from above to help with demonstrations and protests,” she said at a board meeting on Wednesday. “I can tell you all about 99 percent of this to date. Resources are now on the move again. “

Ali Watkins and Sean Piccoli contributed to the coverage.

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