A couple of heavily armed New York National Guard soldiers...

A couple of heavily armed New York National Guard soldiers patrol Grand Central terminal, Thursday, March 7, 2024, in New York. Gov. Kathy Hochul is sending the National Guard to the New York City subway system to help police search passengers’ bags for weapons. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

NEW YORK — Fear of crime on subways and buses is back as a top concern in some U.S. cities, and so are efforts to persuade public officials to take the issue seriously.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday she would task 750 members of the National Guard with helping patrol the nation’s busiest subway system, saying she felt New York City police need reinforcements after a shooting on a train platform and a conductor getting slashed in the neck.

Pennsylvania legislators created a special prosecutor to go after crimes committed in the transit system that serves the southeast of the state. In Philadelphia, where a spate of transit-related shootings left three dead and 12 wounded, many of them high schoolers, Mayor Cherelle Parker also promised Thursday to beef up police patrols.

“Enough is enough,” she said on WURD radio.

It remains to be seen whether such moves will have any effect on reducing crime in these massive public transit systems.

Hochul acknowledged that calling in the National Guard was as much about soothing fears and making a political statement as it was about making mass transit safer. The city’s subways were already safe, the Democrat reasoned, but a show of force might help dispel anxieties more than any statistic.

“If you feel better walking past someone in a uniform to make sure that someone doesn’t bring a knife or a gun on the subway, then that’s exactly why I did it,” Hochul said Thursday on MSNBC. “I want to change the psychology around crime in New York City.”

A couple of heavily armed New York State troopers patrol...

A couple of heavily armed New York State troopers patrol Grand Central terminal, Thursday, March 7, 2024, in New York. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced plans Wednesday to send the National Guard to the New York City subway system to help police conduct random searches of riders' bags for weapons following a series of high-profile crimes on city trains. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

“I’m also going to demonstrate that Democrats fight crime as well,” she added. “So this narrative that Republicans have said that we’re soft on crime, that we defund the police? No.”

Major crimes in the New York City transit system dropped nearly 3% from 2022 to 2023, with five killings last year, down from 10 the year prior, according to police. Overall, violent crime in the subway system is rare, with train cars and stations being generally as safe as any other public place.

In Pennsylvania, overall crime has declined in recent years on the regional transit system, though there were six killings in 2023, up from a total of seven during the previous three years.

Still, the issue of safety on buses and trains is one that keeps resonating with voters — particularly as some systems recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, when passengers stayed away.

A heavily armed New York National Guard soldier stands guard...

A heavily armed New York National Guard soldier stands guard at Penn Station, Thursday, March 7, 2024, in New York. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced plans Wednesday to send the National Guard to the New York City subway system to help police conduct random searches of riders' bags for weapons following a series of high-profile crimes on city trains. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

“Recently it’s been a little unsafe. So I think they should control it before it gets out of hand,” said Alan Uloa, a 43-year-old New York resident. “The other day they slashed the conductor, and that’s not cool.”

New York Republicans hammered Democrats on crime during the 2022 midterms, a message that helped the GOP capture suburban congressional seats.

But heightened law enforcement presence can be a double-edged sword, said Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Miami and the former director of the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“For some people, they’d like to see the added security,” he said. “And for other people, they’ll say we’re overreacting.”

The political tough talk can also gloss over the reality that transit crime accounts for just a tiny percentage of all crime, said Vincent Del Castillo, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former chief of New York City’s transit police.

“You can have 10 to 12 murders in the system when there are literally hundreds across the city,” he said. “But because it’s so rare, it gets a lot of attention.”

The four shootings linked to Philadelphia's bus system began Sunday, when a man was killed by another passenger shortly after they got off a bus.

Two more bus-related shootings in the next two days left two more dead and four injured. Then on Wednesday eight teenagers waiting to take a city bus home after school were shot, leaving a bus riddled with bullet holes.

Charles Lawson, chief of the city's transit police, vowed that officers will take an aggressive approach, using “every criminal code on the book" to crack down on crime.

“We’re going to target individuals concealing their identity,” he said. “We’re going to target fare evasion. We’re going to target open drug use.”

The Guard troops in New York won't be that active. Instead they have been tasked with helping police conduct random searches of bags, a practice in place for nearly two decades. Passengers have the right to refuse such searches, though if they do they are asked to leave the subway system.

Guard troops can't make arrests, but if they witness a crime, they can detain someone until police arrive, just as any civilian can do.

The troops were deployed Thursday, but transit riders might not have noticed as they weren't widely visible at stations or in trains. Some were seen patrolling major hubs, including Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station, where they have been a regular presence since the terror attacks of Sept. 11 , 2001.

Riders have long been split over bag checks, which are infrequent but can hold people up as they race for a train. Searches have also long been a subject of concerns iver racial profiling, though the NYPD says it takes steps to avoid that.

“Sometimes when I’m in a hurry and I have a bag, I don’t like to be stopped,” said Jerome Brooks Jr., a 44-year-old actor and musician. “So then I try to see, do they stop me if they’re going to stop somebody else that doesn’t look like me?”

Cheryl Ann Harper, 46, said she welcomed the precaution.

“We need it,” she said, noting that similar checks are common at theaters. “I do it all the time. Not a big deal. If you don’t have anything to hide, why you can’t open up your bag?”

___

Associated Press reporters Anthony Izaguirre and Michael Hill in Albany, Ted Shaffrey and Michael Sisak in New York City, Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia and Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed.

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