“Call my mom,” Adrian Napier can be heard on cellphone video telling a bystander moments before police rushed onto the subway train, some with their guns drawn.
Images catch the crowd of New York Police Department officers pulling Napier from his seat, as he sits with his hands in the air, and pushing him onto his stomach on the floor where he is arrested and led away.
Later, one of the officers explains the arrest to an onlooker. “He did not pay his fare,” the officer says of Napier, who is 19. “He has an active warrant and now he’s going to jail.”
What is not shown on camera: a 911 caller who moments earlier met officers inside the Brooklyn subway station and accused Napier of having a gun and waving it around, police told The Daily Beast. As officers went to stop him, police say, Napier fled, jumped a turnstile, and boarded a train where he was arrested.
It turned out Napier was not armed at the time of his arrest and no gun was recovered, but after he was stopped, police say officers determined Napier had three outstanding warrants, which is why he was arrested, police said. He was also charged with fare evasion for jumping the turnstile when he ran from officers.
Since Napier’s arrest on Oct. 25, video of the incident has been viewed millions of times and received attention from prominent politicians, including Democratic presidential hopeful Julián Castro.
For many of those viewers, activists say, the incident highlights a growing tension in New York City’s subways. The fares went up again this year to $2.75, while state authorities rolled out a new public awareness campaign against fare-beating and Gov. Andrew Cuomo committed 500 new MTA police officers to patrol train stations.
In response, hundreds of protesters rallied on Friday in defense of Napier and several other young men of color arrested on subway platforms in recent weeks. The protesters carried signs denouncing not just the fare but the NYPD as an institution. Police said two people were arrested, including a 25-year-old woman who allegedly defaced a police car with the word “Pigs” and a 22-year-old man for allegedly spitting on a police officer. In one video protesters jump over turnstiles en masse.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” one protester told the New York Post of a video of a recent subway arrest. “I mean, it’s monstrous. My fucking tax dollars are going to this? It doesn’t make sense.”
According to the latest NYPD stats, fare evasion enforcement is up 50 percent, even with fewer arrests. The department has issued 21,000 more civil summonses for fare evasion in 2019 than in 2018, while arrests have gone down 47 percent for the same time period from 5,195 to 2,773. Over a two-year span, arrests for evasion are down 82 percent.
“While arrests are a stronger deterrent for the chronic fare evaders and those with criminal intentions, since the Brooklyn and Manhattan district attorneys won’t prosecute most fare evasion arrests, the NYPD diverts approximately 95 percent of those apprehended at the turnstile to a lower level of enforcement such as a summons,” NYPD spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement.
The recent arrests in the subways have been framed as fare-beating cases by activists. Police say the arrests had nothing to do with fares.
A picture of an arrest in a Corona, Queens subway station shows police using a taser on a young man and handcuffing another. Although the post went viral with the caption “all of this for $2.75?!?!” the head of the NYPD transit division noted police were responding to a 911 call about people threatening each other with knives.
In another incident on Oct. 25, police arrested five teenagers on a downtown Brooklyn subway platform, punching some of them in the face. Police said the arrests stemmed from a brawl between teenagers (social media commenters initially suggested it was a fare-beating case). At least one of the teens arrested said he had nothing to do with the original fight. The boy, 15-year-old Benjamin Marshall, filed a $5 million lawsuit against the NYPD after cellphone footage showed an officer punching him.
Marshall’s lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, said his client suffered a concussion from the punch. Rubenstein tied the case to a what he claims is a long history of excessive force by NYPD officers against people of color in the city.
“I believe we have a serious problem with police brutality, as bad or worse as ever,” Rubenstein told The Daily Beast. “Fortunately now with cellphones, we have video of the truth.”
The New York Daily News reported that the officer who struck Marshall has a history of excessive force complaints filed with the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, one of which was substantiated. The CCRB told The Daily Beast that the agency had opened an investigation into Marshall’s arrest. An NYPD spokesperson said the officer would be placed in a non-enforcement assignment while he is under investigation. A spokesman with the Brooklyn DA’s office said the officer’s actions are “under review” by prosecutors.
But where some New Yorkers see the increased police presence as a latent threat, others present it as a security measure.
This summer, Gov. Cuomo announced a new campaign against fare-beating and assaults on transit workers. Cuomo claimed a link between people who skipped fares and people who attacked subway employees, although the correlation might be more tenuous than he suggested; a Cuomo spokesperson later told The New York Times that many people involved in subway crimes had also failed to pay their fares. (This trend does not suggest fare-beating causes attacks on transit workers.)
Although he said the goal was to deter, not arrest people who skipped on their fares, he announced that 500 more police officers would patrol subway stations and bus routes with high rates of fare evasion. Placing more officers in stations with higher rates of fare evasion might result in disproportionate enforcement against neighborhoods where more residents are working class or people of color: Black and Latino New Yorkers already make up the bulk of fare beating arrests and summonses (86 percent of all such arrests from April to June, the Daily News reported).
For some New Yorkers, the $2.75-per-swipe cost of the subway isn’t an option, the Community Service Society noted in a report last spring. “The high cost of transit was seriously impeding the economic mobility of low-income New Yorkers,” the organization wrote of its investigation. “We’ve heard numerous stories of people crawling under the turnstile because they had no other way of getting home, or sneaking through the gate when they realized both their MetroCard and bank account were empty.”
When those people were caught, they faced arrest or a $100 summons. “That’s over 36 times the amount they failed to pay at the turnstile,” the CSS noted.
In an Oct. 29 press conference, Cuomo justified assigning 500 more officers to the subway stations by citing a “dramatic increase in crime in the subway system.”
But not even the NYPD agrees with that description, with NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill noting that crime in the subways is down for the year while arrests are up and that ridership is at a near all-time high, with roughly 6 million straphangers using the system a day.
“It’s a total mischaracterization. Crime is down in the subway,” O’Neill said Wednesday during an unrelated press conference, adding that “fare evasion enforcement is up and it needs to be up” but that the subway system is averaging just “six major crimes a day, and there are 6 million riders a day. So that is not a system that is out of control. I absolutely disagree with Gov. Cuomo’s characterization of the NYC subway system.”
The increased measures against fare enforcement might not even be working. Fare evasion has actually increased in recent months, despite the increased police presence, the MTA said in October. Instead, the anti-fare beating measures are actually introducing new costs to the system. In addition to the 500 new officers in the subways, Cuomo announced the addition of new surveillance cameras, specifically to catch fare beaters.
In a Friday MTA board meeting, a member suggested using the cameras to publicly shame people who failed to pay their fares, amNewYork reported. The same day, a picture of those new cameras went viral when writer Rosemary Donahue tweeted a picture of workers installing a camera over every turnstile in a downtown Manhattan station.
“The amount of money this city is spending to shame those that don’t have it and criminalize fare evasion is truly backwards and fucked,” Donahue tweeted.