Additional reporting by Katie Honan
New Yorkers who answered Mayor Eric Adams’s call to snap photos of inattentive police officers on cell phones in subway stations say the campaign is more image than action.
Following two spring shootings in the transit system, Adams in April urged riders to “send me a photo,” pledging that he would pay a visit to stations where cops were photographed on their phones “to see exactly what’s happening.”
Evan Ishmael tagged the mayor in a July 3 tweet that shows an officer on a phone at the Christopher Street stop on the No. 1 line in Manhattan. He said he received no response.
“I don’t think that he honestly cares to do anything about it,” Ishmael, 37, who lives in Bushwick, told THE CITY. “I feel like the statement and the suggestion to take pictures of the cops was — like most things in his campaign or in his current stint as mayor — for show.”
Roughly 2,500 officers are assigned to the NYPD Transit Bureau, a department spokesperson said, along with 1,000 extra officers who were deployed into the system in January.
A spokesperson for Adams told THE CITY the mayor’s press office has heard from approximately two dozen people about police on cell phones in the subway, adding that transit officers are required to carry the devices to receive real-time updates and record their activities while on duty.
“Those who are using their phones for legitimate purposes are keeping our streets and our subways safe,” said the spokesperson, Fabien Levy. “But we need to stop those few who are using their personal phones while on the job.
This is a tactical problem that could possibly pose a risk to both the officer and to members of the public,” he added.
Yet, nearly a dozen straphangers who have snapped photos and tagged the mayor and the NYPD on social media told THE CITY they did not receive any followup to their posts.
Christopher Vacchio, 33, said he regularly sees police officers “hanging out on their phones or talking with each other” when he rides the subway. Last month, he snapped a shot of three cops on the southbound platform of the 50th Street stop on the C and E lines, tagging the mayor and the MTA.
“As you requested, here’s a group of police officers standing around on their phones at an @MTA subway station,” Vacchio wrote. “Not pictured: a second group of 4 officers doing the same thing on the same platform.”
Vacchio told THE CITY he didn’t receive a reply.
“I think [Adams] said it thinking no one would bother to take a photo, and I know in New York many people would be afraid to take a photo of a police officer,” he said. “I thought it would be important to call him out on this.”
Casey Jones, 29, also tagged the mayor on Twitter when he posted a photo of two officers — including one looking down at his phone — while on the mezzanine level at the 14th Street-Union Square station.
“And we wonder how these shooters get away,” he wrote in the May 23 tweet.
“It was a [public relations] push to make it look like they’re doing something proactive and maybe a scare tactic for the police to button up, if you will,” Jones told THE CITY.
Jones added that the mayor’s call may not have the intended effect.
“I think [police] are pissed off,” he said. “I think they feel like they’re being babysat by civilians and they’re retreating from the subway station. They’re hanging out in their patrol cars in front of the station stairs on the street — and still on their phone.”
Crime Up Underground
The mayor’s push for New Yorkers to flag police officers focused on their phones came as the NYPD has put more police officers into the transit system as part of the city’s “Subway Safety Plan” and amid a 55% year-to-date increase in major felonies in the transit system, according to NYPD figures.
It followed a series of high-profile crimes in the subway, including the April 12 shooting on a train at the 36th Street station in Sunset Park and the January 15 death of a 40-year-woman who was fatally shoved in front of an R train at the Times Square-42nd Street station.
Crime data provided to the MTA by the NYPD show that from January through May, robberies in the subway increased by nearly 52% over the previous year, while the number of grand larcenies spiked from 223 through May of 2021 to 441 through May of this year.
Going back to Bill de Blasio’s two terms as mayor, MTA officials have repeatedly pressed City Hall for an expanded police presence in the subway, citing rider concerns over disturbed individuals on trains and on platforms. The transit agency has found a willing partner in Adams, who has boosted numbers in the system.
“What I’m thrilled about is that we have a mayor who’s an ex-transit cop who is saying exactly what I asked for before he became mayor,” Janno Lieber, MTA Chairperson and CEO, said after the transit agency’s April board meeting. “Which is, we want cops on trains, cops on platforms — that’s where the riders feel vulnerable.”
The union for patrol officers pushed back at Adams’s initial criticism at the time, saying that the NYPD should “go back to pen and paper” if there is a problem with cops using phones while on duty.
‘I Find It Infuriating’
“I think I have been more aware and seeing more of it, since [Adams] had a big press conference, calling it out,” said James Richardson, 35, who tweeted a photo on May 31 of an MTA police officer on his phone while on a platform at the Borough Hall stop in Brooklyn. “There’s a part of me that is curious if it is actually an uptick in officer behavior, or if it’s just a thing that now I’m paying attention to because the mayor told me to and nothing is actually happening with it.”
Levy, the mayoral spokesperson, said Adams is working with the chief of the NYPD Transit Bureau to ensure officers are “100% focused” while on duty and not looking at phones unless absolutely necessary.
But riders who have been tagging photos of cops on mobile devices said they are skeptical that their phone use is work-related.
“As a taxpayer, am I paying you to look at porn or what beer is on sale this week?” said a 55-year-old Manhattan woman who asked not to have her name published because she has posted multiple photos of officers on phones in the subway. “They’re on their phones all the time, no matter where it is, and I find it infuriating.”