NEW YORK (AP) — New York City's policing of subway fare beaters is drawing scrutiny from the state’s attorney general for possible racial bias.
Letitia James announced Monday that her office is investigating the New York Police Department's fare-enforcement practices after the department released new data showing black and Hispanic people account for the vast majority of its fare-related summonses and arrests.
James' office sent a letter to the police commissioner Monday seeking additional data, such as the number of officers assigned to each subway station each day — figures she said could shed light on whether officers are targeting communities of color.
James, a Democrat, promised to take legal action if her office finds evidence of discrimination.
"We’ve all read the stories and seen the disturbing videos of men, women, and children being harassed, dragged away, and arrested by officers in our city’s subway system, which is why we are launching an investigation into this deeply troublesome conduct,” James said in a statement.
NYPD spokeswoman Devora Kaye said officers "patrol day and night to keep 6 million daily riders safe and enforce the law fairly and equally without consideration of race or ethnicity.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would address James' questions.
“We want it to be fair, so definitely, we’ll work with her to see how we can all get closer to that goal,” the Democrat said on cable news station NY1's “Inside City Hall," while also defending the need for subway enforcement and noting the city's efforts to handle fare-beating largely with tickets instead of arrests.
“Everyone should pay their fare,” the Democrat said. “And the best way to make sure that happens is to have a police presence that prevents fare evasion.”
James' letter also seeks information on any arrangements made between the police department and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway system, regarding enforcement of fare evasion laws.
Ken Lovett, a senior adviser to MTA chairman Pat Foye, said in a statement that all customers “are entitled to fair and equal treatment under the law.”
“Fare evasion is a $300 million annual problem that should be addressed in a way that does not unjustly target any specific group or community," Lovett said, adding that the agency would assist the attorney general's inquiry.
NYPD data shows black and Hispanic people accounted for nearly 90% of fare-related arrests and nearly 70% of summonses between October 2017 and June 2019.
Those groups combined account for a little more than half of the city’s population.
Fare evasion has been a major gripe of the MTA in recent years. It says lost revenue from fare evasion jumped from $105 million in 2015 to $225 million in 2018, while assaults reported by employees increased by 15.2% from 2013 to 2017.
In response, the agency is hiring 500 additional officers for its own police force at a cost of $249 million over four years.
Fare evasion and other subway matters have traditionally been policed by the NYPD, which issues summonses to most fare evasion suspects instead of arresting them.
Some city prosecutors have stopped trying the cases.
De Blasio pointed to the city's shift in recent years toward summonses instead of arrests for many accused fare-beaters, as well as other moves to reduce arrests for low-level offenses.
“The changes and reforms we’re making in policing will continue and will deepen,” he said on NY1.