Fare evasion is a part of daily life in the city’s subway system— some don’t even think twice about jumping a turnstile or sneaking in through an open exit door.
But, according to NYPD brass, the infraction works in tandem with far greater, more dangerous crimes. Over the course of several weeks, amNewYork Metro rode along with transit police as they worked to stop fare evasion in its tracks.
What’s the big deal?
Some riders who choose to leap instead of swipe are acting out of impulse. Maybe they’re running late or left their wallet at home. To outside observers, fare evasion doesn’t seem like that big of a crime, except for the millions of dollars the MTA loses from it every year.
This paper’s first question to cops was simple: Why is stopping fare evasion so important? It turns out the answer could mean the difference between life and death.
On Sept. 20, the MTA announced that the transit system had reached a post-pandemic high of 4,179,902 riders venturing into the bowels of the Big Apple — but those were only the commuters who paid. Amidst those who swipe their MetroCards and tap their debit cards, hundreds of others avoid paying fares by blatantly and unabashedly hopping the turnstiles.
The MTA estimates that they lost $690 million in 2022 due to fare evasion. Still, NYPD maintains that the system’s loss of income is not the only concern.
Authorities say there is a strong correlation between fare evasion and disorderly conduct on the platforms and trains, and even dangerous, life-threatening illegal activity.
Paying the toll
According to NYPD Chief of Transit Michael Kemper, fare evasion goes far beyond simply attempting to skip out on paying $2.90 for a train ride; the chief says many of those perpetrators who have been stopped for entering the subway illegally have been found to have concealed weapons on them or have active warrants.
“We’re stopping people that are attempting to walk into the subway system with weapons — guns, knives, and other illegal weapons. We’re also stopping people from entering the system who are wanted, wanted for some serious, serious crimes,” Chief Kemper said. “We’ve stopped people entering the subway system through fare evasion who are wanted for murder, sex crimes, robberies.”
Detractors of the policing policy argue that cops are focusing solely on low-income individuals who can’t afford to pay the fare, leaving them in even greater financial straits when they are issued a fine. Chief Kemper pushed back against this, stating that officers are merely looking to keep the public safe.
“This is not about targeting people. This is not about arresting people,” Chief Kemper said. “This is about behavior correcting, that weighs heavily on the rider’s mind — unlawful behavior, disorderly behavior. This is what this is all about.”
From Lower Manhattan to Midtown, amNewYork Metro observed a deluge of commuters bypassing the fares in a series of wildly creative ways: some riders performed the classic two-handed vault over the turnstiles while others simply waltzed through open emergency exit doors. Others pulled the turnstiles back and used a single leg to hop over, while some resorted to getting on their hands and knees and crawling under.
Cops say they’ve seen it all — and, even when they’re caught red-handed, the fare evaders often try to protest, claiming innocence or feigning ignorance, police on the beat report.
“There are two things you hear when you wear this uniform: ‘I didn’t do it’ and ‘F–k you,’” one unnamed cop said.
Other methods police keep a keen eye out for include doubling up and pushing through the turnstile and even using long coats to conceal a strategically placed leap. Over the course of the investigation, it also became clear that those avoiding the toll cannot be defined by age or gender as teens and even seniors could be observed attempting to avoid a charge.
A warning, a fine, or silver bracelets
Among the uniformed officers who patrol subway entrances, platforms, and trains, plain-clothed cops likewise keep an eagle eye out for illegal activity like fare evasion.
Over the course of amNewYork Metro’s investigation, this reporter observed riders scanning the surrounding entrance for law enforcement before jumping the turnstile, only to be met by cops dressed as civilians.
“Most of the time you may be sitting next to an officer, and you don’t even realize it,” Inspector Steven Hill said, charging that the enforcement is really focused on preventing further crime. “When you take care of the little things, the big things don’t happen.”
Even so, cops say they try their best to be fair to fare beaters. More often than not, they will let turnstile hoppers off with a warning, or order them out of the subway system. Others will be slapped with a summons, resulting in a fine. But, if a fare evader is caught possessing a weapon or is wanted for another crime, they will be whisked away in cuffs.
Over the course of the ride-along, amNewYork Metro observed all three instances, including one individual who tried to run when caught — only to be cuffed by police moments later.
At the end of the line, one question remains: If a criminal is wanted by police or is concealing a deadly weapon, why jump the turnstile?
Chief Kemper candidly admitted that he does not have the answer to that question, yet he surmises it could be as simple as arrogance and entitlement.
“More often than not, the overwhelming majority of people that we wind up arresting from fare evasion have more than enough money in their pocket to pay that fare. So why aren’t they paying? I don’t know,” Chief Kemper said.
With deadly weapons being brought inside the subway system each day by those refusing to swipe, police say they believe it can be a matter of life or death when apprehending fare evaders. Cops likewise believe that what happens down below will have an effect above ground as well, and vice versa, ensuring New York is kept safer.
Police report they have made 105,000 arrests in 2023 of people who have tried to cheat the system by not paying to enter the subway, but, more importantly than that, they say they believe they have saved lives.
Editors note: Some faces have been blurred in photos to protect the anonymity of undercover NYPD officers as they work to stop fare evasion.