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Long IslandTransportation

As MTA doubles down on hiring more cops, others raise concerns about cost

Two police officers for the Metropolitan Transit Authority

Two police officers for the Metropolitan Transit Authority patrol the Long Island Rail Road mezzanine at Penn Station on Thursday. The MTA plans to spend $260 million over the next four years to nearly double the size of its police force. Credit: Charles Eckert

A proposal by the MTA to hire 500 additional cops is drawing criticism from transportation and financial watchdogs, but is being applauded by some on Long Island who believe an increased police presence could improve customers' experience at some LIRR stations.

The plan to bolster the police ranks by about 65%, even while the MTA is facing massive deficits, comes amid a steady decrease in major crimes throughout the department’s service area. Their work was until now largely confined to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s two commuter railroads — the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North.

Through October, the MTA Police Department reported a systemwide decrease in felonies of 11% as compared with 2018 — a year that went on to have the fewest reported crimes in the department’s history. On the LIRR, felonies are down 13% in the first 10 months of this year.

Under the plan, supported by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the MTA Police would expand its patrol onto the New York City Transit bus and subway system. The city's trains and buses have, historically, been the jurisdiction of the NYPD. The proposed changes would come as the MTA looks for ways to address growing problems of homelessness and fare evasion on city buses and subways.

MTA officials have said the strengthened police force also could help address growing concerns from commuters about homelessness, panhandling and drug use at some LIRR stations. 

MTA chairman Patrick Foye defended the plan in an NY1 interview Thursday as key to the transit authority's core mission.

"It's not an add-on. It's not a luxury. It's not an extra," Foye said. "In the context of the size of the subway system and the size of the bus system, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, we think this is an investment in maintaining a safe and secure environment for our customers and employees, which is a fundamental responsibility we've got."

The MTA aims to have about 200 new cops on the job this month, and the rest hired by the end of 2020. About 90 of the new cops would fill vacant positions. 

How the new cops would be deployed would be determined by police leadership “depending on where the greatest needs are,” said Foye, adding that the cops also are needed to address assaults on transit workers and potential terror threats.

“Those risks are real, and remain with us,” Foye said last month.

Among those who have pushed for an increased police presence at LIRR stations is Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), who recently met with LIRR president Phillip Eng and other MTA officials to discuss quality-of-life problems at the Babylon station, including harassment of commuters by panhandlers.

“In our meetings with MTA brass, they’ve said the difficulty of getting more of a police presence at stations such as Babylon is just manpower, and this should resolve those issues,” Boyle said. “We just want to make sure that Long Island gets its fair share.”

Others are less keen on hiring the 500 officers at an estimated cost of $260 million over four years, especially given what Foye has described a “dire” financial picture for the MTA, which is facing growing operating budget deficits that could reach nearly $1 billion by 2023.

Some commuter and financial watchdogs have suggested the money would be better spent on increasing service for the MTA’s booming ridership.

Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission — a nonprofit fiscal think tank among 80 organizations that wrote to Cuomo opposing the police plan — said some of the same goals sought by hiring more cops could be accomplished through more strategic deployment of existing officers and better use of health and social service providers.

“This is certainly a significant increase, both in enforcement and costs at a time when they need to get their finances and services in order,” Rein said. “I think any additional spending at the MTA needs to be looked at in the context of the priorities of service stability, systems stability and fiscal stability. They have many needs, and they have a fiscally precarious situation.”

But Michael O’Meara, president of the MTA Police Benevolent Association, said no priority should be higher for the MTA than the safety and security of its riders and employees. O’Meara said the effort to address understaffing in the force was long overdue, as evidenced by officers’ disproportionately high overtime rate.

According to an analysis by the Empire Center for Public Policy, a government watchdog group, the average MTA Police officer earned nearly $35,000 in overtime last year — more than any other MTA employee.

“I think that we can do a lot with 500 [new cops]. I think we can address a lot of the concerns of the suburban railroads . . . We just don’t have the resources right now to address it,” O’Meara said. “You’re talking about hundreds of miles, millions of people a day.”

MTA officials said a large portion of the money spent on the new cops would be recouped in lower overtime costs, as well as in a lower rate of fare evasion on buses and subways.

Some MTA Board members representing New York City have expressed skepticism over the plan, including David Jones, who has said that flooding the subway system with cops to target low-income fare-beaters would “criminalize poverty.”

But Kevin Law, Suffolk County’s representative on the board, said he supported the measure, as long as the extra manpower was proportionately distributed throughout the MTA system, including on Long Island.

“I’ve heard complaints — a lot of them are quality-of-life complaints. They may not be major crimes, but it’s aggressive panhandling, homelessness, people sleeping on chairs and benches and loitering,” Law said. “Our commuters need to feel safe when they go to a station and wait for a train. And whenever you have more police presence, that’s reassuring to commuters.”

Robert Pickus, a longtime commuter from Plainview, said the Hicksville station was, not long ago, “overrun” by homeless people, including some who would leave behind unsanitary conditions inside the station’s restrooms. He’s noticed an improvement in recent months.

“I feel badly for them. They obviously have no place to go. And this time of year, it’s cold. . . . But they don’t care for the place,” Pickus said.

He believes the new hires would be money well spent. “You want as many cops out there as possible,” Pickus said.

MTA POLICE AT A GLANCE

  • Created in 1998 with the consolidation of LIRR's and Metro-North's respective police departments.
  • Has about 760 union-represented officers.
  • The average MTA Police officer earned $131,959 in 2018, including average overtime of $34,936, the highest overtime rate among MTA employees.
  • Systemwide, the MTA Police reported 237 crimes in 2018 — the lowest in the department's history.
  • Through October of this year, crime is down systemwide by 11% — and by 13% on the LIRR.
  • MTA proposal would add 500 new officers, 200 this month and the rest in 2020, at a total cost of about $260 million over four years.
  • Patrol historically has been concentrated on LIRR and Metro-North facilities, but would be expanded to New York City buses and subways.

SOURCE: MTA, MTA Police Benevolent Association, Empire Center for Public Policy

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