Panhandling arrests in the subway continue to soar

Police have been cracking down on illegal panhandling in the city subway system.
Police have been cracking down on illegal panhandling in the city subway system. Photo Credit: Getty/Matthias Hangst

The NYPD is continuing its crackdown on illegal panhandling in the subway system, with more than triple the number of arrests in 2014 compared to a year ago, according to latest stats from the department.

Under NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, transit police have made 511 panhandling arrests through June 22, compared to 142 during the same six-month period last year, a 260% increase, according to the NYPD.

“Our enforcement of quality of life offenses remains strong,” NYPD’s transit bureau Deputy Chief Vincent Coogan told MTA board members Monday.

The crackdown on people in stations or traversing subway cars asking for riders’ spare change eclipsed the number of arrests seen throughout all of 2013, when there were 372 arrests, and 2012, which had 309 arrests, according to the NYPD.

Eugene O’Donnell of John Jay College of Criminal Justice said the focus on quality-of-life in the subways is classic Bratton, who headed the transit police in 1990 before running the New York City, Los Angeles and Boston police forces. Bratton, armed with the “broken windows” theory of policing, turned around a high-crime subway system that New Yorkers feared.

“I think there’s a widely perceived perception that there was some slippage in rider satisfaction relative to public safety,” O’Donnell said.

It’s not just panhandlers getting special attention, but peddlers and subway dancers, too. There were 246 arrests of these young acrobats, who twirl and flip in subway cars to the delight or annoyance of riders, for disorderly conduct or reckless endangerment.

The spike in enforcement against panhandling, O’Donnell said, is a “small but visible victory” for Bratton.

This comes at a time where homelessness in the subway system is at its highest levelin nearly 10 years, according to the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate. The HOPE survey released earlier this month said there were 1,808 homeless people living in the subways, a 2% decrease from 2013, but still double the amount from 2005.

“Not everyone panhandling in the subway is homeless,” said Mary Brosnahan, president and CEO of Coalition for the Homeless. “However, we have since a stark difference since Bill Bratton came on the job.”

Brosnahan called the arrests “low-hanging fruit.”

The city and the MTA are about to undergo a $6 million homeless outreach initiative in July to triple the number of people assigned to reach out to the homeless in each station and in subway cars. The goal is to offer shelter, housing and other services.

Isaac Jones, a 69-year-old homeless man who has been panhandling for three years, said outside the 34th Street station entrance that the worst a police officer can tell him on the street is to move.

“I stay out of the subway,” he said. “I’d never go down there.”

Cindy Walker, a 29-year-old housekeeper from Pelham Parkway, said she preferred panhandlers who need help get services from the city.

“They should actually get them out of the subway because sometimes they’re rude and obnoxious,” Walker said.

Cely Tirado, a 32-year-old from Wakefield, was unsure about the crackdown if it the homeless are being caught up.

“You never know if they really need it,” she said.

(With Noelani Montero)