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Turnstile Jumping Pits de Blasio Against Police Reformers

The New York Times

The subway turnstile — low enough to vault, ubiquitous enough to figure in the lives of millions of New Yorkers each day — has long served as a kind of dragnet for the Police Department. There, officers lie in wait, nabbing those who skip the fare.

Of late, these rotating entry points and those who jump them have become stumbling blocks for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who despite his liberal credentials, has been vocally opposed to the Manhattan district attorney’s office's new policy of declining to prosecute most who are arrested over fare evasion.

Mr. de Blasio, a champion of improving the lot of poor New Yorkers, has adamantly defended the police practice of using evasion of the $2.75 fare as a means for officers to check the names and warrants of those they stop, most of whom are black or Hispanic.

He has been unpersuaded by critics on the left who believe the approach — pioneered in the 1990s by William J. Bratton, Mr. de Blasio’s first police commissioner — is a form of biased and overly aggressive policing akin to stop-and-frisk. And he does not think most are motivated by poverty.

“A lot of people who commit fare evasion and the police encounter have a lot of money on them,” Mr. de Blasio said during a news conference at Police Headquarters on Tuesday. “I think I have a lot of validity on the question of income inequality and how we fight it, but you never heard me say, you know, open up the gates of the subway for free. That’s chaos.”

Before the mayor spoke, police officials highlighted a rise in crime on subways in Manhattan, specifically a jump in robberies: There have been 19 so far this year, up from nine in the same period a year ago.

Some police leaders say that the dramatic decreases in crime have directly resulted from decades of attention to the turnstiles — one of the first widespread examples of the broken-windows philosophy adopted by Mr. Bratton.

“The New York miracle, if you will, began with fare evasion — fare evasion enforcement on the subway 25 years ago,” Mr. Bratton said in February 2014, when he was newly appointed by Mr. de Blasio as commissioner. “We’re still at it.”

The spat over how to deal with fare evaders cuts to the heart of criminal justice reform: In a city where crime has reached previously unfathomable lows, how much more can the justice system change?

The answer has divided Mr. de Blasio from typical allies like the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance, and the new City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, both self-identified progressive Democrats. It has also, improbably, aligned the mayor with Joseph J. Lhota, his 2013 Republican rival and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman.

Mr. Lhota, who has been engaged in an epistolary battle with Mr. Vance over the policy, suggested on Wednesday that if the new policy led to a surge in fare evasion, he would consider a drastic solution.

“I’m going to seriously consider putting the alarms back on the doors,” he said of the emergency doors that emitted an ear-piercing siren when opened and were silenced in 2014 to much fanfare. “Those doors should only be used for emergencies.”

On Monday, Mr. Lhota urged Mr. Vance in a letter to reconsider the policy, citing a recent arrest of a man from Virginia whom officers confronted over failing to pay his fare and then discovered that he was wanted for attempted murder in his home state.

“In the name of the millions who both depend upon and pay for M.T.A. services every day, I strongly urge you to reverse this unilateral policy,” Mr. Lhota wrote.

Hours later, Mr. Vance wrote back with a point-by-point description of his approach, which began last week and only applies to those arrested in the subways and not on the city’s buses. “Our policy does not alter, in practice or in effect, the N.Y.P.D.’s enforcement of fare evasion," he wrote. “In fact, this policy allows N.Y.P.D. officers to conduct more enforcement of subway crimes,” Mr. Vance added, because officers are encouraged to hand out summonses and return to the beat, rather than spending time in court.

And he said that the man from Virginia cited by Mr. Lhota had been “properly apprehended, and there is no reason why this type of policing will decline under the new Manhattan policy.”

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