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This piece was originally published on Discourse Blog on April 13, 2022.
On Tuesday, a man walked onto the subway platform at the 36th Street station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with a handgun and several fireworks, and shot 10 people. He then walked off of the train where he had just shot people and went … somewhere. We don’t know exactly where he went because it took the NYPD well over 24 hours to catch him.
The police knew what the man looked like and what his name was because he had a public YouTube channel where he talked about how easy it would be to attack people on the subway, which is absolutely correct. It is very easy to do this. It is incredibly easy for basically any person in America to obtain a gun and then drive to New York City in a rented car and then walk into a subway platform and shoot people, which is exactly what 62-year-old Frank James allegedly did.
The reason for this is that the police in Brooklyn, and basically everywhere, do not do the job that society thinks that they do. You will notice that I am not saying that the police are not good at their jobs. In many cases, they are. The issue is that their jobs often have nothing to do with “serving” or “protecting” civilians; the police’s ability to prevent crime is basically zero. They can only respond to it, which happens to be the part of their job they are the worst at.
The part of their job that police are good at is projecting physical force onto whichever elements of society the state deems to be undesirable. In nonacademic terms, that largely means they’re good at beating up people who annoy them or harassing people that local governments want to minimize.
Here’s what that looks like:
None of these things make us safer. It is true, at least anecdotally, that the subway has been getting rougher in recent months—I’ve personally had a few unpleasant experiences and my partner, who commutes multiple times a week, has had several more. Eric Adams has flooded the subways with police in order to address this and doubled down on homeless sweeps above ground. It clearly has not made anyone safer.
We know by now what would actually make communities safer: increased investment in public resources for the homeless and mentally ill, more restrictions on purchasing and owning firearms, decreasing income inequality and removing many of the material conditions that allow people to become radicalized, angry, and violent. None of these are likely to happen anytime soon. But it’s telling that in New York City we are attempting precisely none of them, that our response to any new crisis is simply to put more boots on more necks and hope that the problems go away. The only people who benefit from the myth that the police serve and protect is the police—and they benefit the most from it when they fail to do their jobs.
Which is exactly what happened in this case, of course. Security cameras in the subways didn’t work during the initial shooting; The New York Times quoted an officer responding saying that his radio was not working and instructed victims to instead call 911 (who would presumably, then … contact the police).
It’s telling that when the shooter was finally caught, it wasn’t from hard-nosed police work or shoe-leather investigation. It was because a local business owner in the East Village had a working security camera, saw the guy on it, and called the cops. The suspect had possibly been riding around the subway for hours since the shooting. None of Eric Adams’s thousands of cops had seen or stopped him before then. Maybe they had a different job to do.