‘I Am Shaken’: Spate of Violent Subway Attacks Unnerves Riders

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It was 2 p.m. on Tuesday, what would normally have been a busy weekday as Thanksgiving neared. Alex Weisman, a stage and television actor, stepped off a train at a subway station on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and was punched twice in the face by a man who then fled.

The assault injured Mr. Weisman’s skull in two places and tore one of his retinas.

“There was nothing else I could have done to protect myself,” Mr. Weisman, 33, said on Friday. “I am shaken by this.”

The day after Mr. Weisman was attacked, a man was shoved onto the tracks at the Bryant Park station after arguing with another man whom the police believe was a panhandler. On Thursday, a woman was pushed off the platform at the Union Square station by an emotionally disturbed man who appeared to be homeless. She lay between the tracks and avoided serious injuries as a train passed over her.

The three attacks were part of a worrying trend: After overall crime on the subway dropped significantly during the citywide lockdown this spring, violent crimes have started to increase. So far this year, incidents of felony assault, rape, homicide and robbery on the subway have surpassed the number of those crimes committed in the same period last year.

Now, as the financially battered transit agency that runs the system warns of major service cuts and fare hikes if it does not get substantial federal aid, the rise in crime has stirred fears among riders and complicated officials’ efforts to coax people back to the subway.

In recent months, the agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo controls, has criticized the New York Police Department for not deploying more uniformed officers to the system.

But the recent rash of attacks has also led transit officials to press the city to provide more support for mentally ill people who seek shelter on the subway.

“This city has a mental health crisis right now,’’ Sarah Feinberg, New York City Transit’s interim president, said at a news conference on Thursday. “We have got folks in this city who desperately need mental health care. I’m desperate for this mayor or the next mayor to take it on because we’ve got a long way to go.”

Police and transit officials say the subway remains overwhelmingly safe and that the latest spike in crime pales next to the dark days of the 1970s and ’80s, when trains were splashed with graffiti and rampant violence was a steady source of dread among riders.

There were arrests in both of the shoving incidents this week, and both suspects appeared to be homeless and mentally ill, the police said. Neither those attacks nor the one involving Mr. Weisman were related, the police said.

Videos of some attacks have circulated on social media and alarmed riders, many of whom are already anxious about using public transportation during a pandemic because of health concerns.

“I think at this time it’s bad to be standing over there,” said Senance Johnson, 37, nodding toward the platform’s edge at an L line stop in Brooklyn on Friday, “because a lot of people are getting pushed.”

A video of the Union Square attack shows many riders’ worst fear playing out in real time. Moments before a train arrives at the station, a man lunges at a woman standing near him, sending her flying onto the tracks. Seconds later, the incoming train speeds over her as another rider holds his head and drops to the floor in disbelief.

The woman, 40, landed in a small space between the tracks that kept her from being hit by the train’s wheels, the police said. The man who attacked her, Aditya Vemulapati, 24, surrendered to a transit worker and was taken into custody, officials said. He was charged with attempted murder, assault and reckless endangerment, the police said.

“It was by the grace of God that she sustained only minor injuries,” Kathleen O’Reilly, the transit police chief, told reporters on Thursday. “We see him waiting and calculating when the train comes into the station, and at the opportune moment he pushed her to the tracks.”

The police arrested a second man, Justin Pena, in the shoving incident at the Bryant Park station and charged him with attempted murder and reckless endangerment, officials said.

Hector Gonzalez, a maintenance technician from Manhattan who has lived in the city since 1983, said he worried that New Yorkers with mental illness had been forced to seek refuge on the subway.

“I don’t think it has to do with violence, random violence,’’ Mr. Gonzalez said on Friday as he waited for a train at the Jay Street-MetroTech station in Brooklyn. “I think it has to do with people who are not being taken care of.”

City officials say they have provided more housing for those in need during the pandemic, which resulted in the subway being shut down overnight for deep cleaning. Twelve-hundred beds were added for homeless people and others who typically seek shelter in the system and hundreds of outreach workers were deployed to offer services.

So far, nearly 600 people who were effectively living on the subway have been provided with shelter, said Steven Banks, the city’s social services commissioner.

“Anybody who looks at the situation would say there are the lowest number of people experiencing homeless in the subway system than in any point in decades,” he said.

The rise in serious crimes is a stark turnabout from the spring, when a citywide shutdown that was put in place to stem the spread of coronavirus drained the subway of 90 percent of its riders and overall crime in the system plunged.

Police officials attributed the drop-off to fewer riders presenting targets for thieves and other relatively minor crimes. But the emptiness in stations may have emboldened people who were intent on committing more serious crimes and who felt more confident doing so with fewer possible witnesses, police officials have said.

“Less riders can certainly give way to certain crimes,” Edward Delatorre, a former transit police chief, said in an interview last month. “A barren station or a shutdown could be inviting for certain crimes.”

The only subway crime that has decreased this is grand larceny, a trend that may reflect the reduced ridership. In 2019, the police recorded nearly 1,400 incidents of grand larceny, while only 716 had been recorded in 2020 as of Sunday.

But other serious crimes have increased this year despite subway ridership remaining at about 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

As of Sunday, there had been 514 robberies recorded, compared with 455 in the same period last year. Through the end of October, there had been 294 reports of felony assault, compared with 289 in the same period last year.

So far this year, there have also been six homicides, compared with three in the same period last year, and five reports of rape, up from three last year.

In response to safety concerns, the transportation authority hired 85 uniformed and unarmed security guards to patrol the subway and call the police in response to violent incidents as necessary. In addition, up to 60 authority police officers and 300 city police officers are on duty in the subway per shift, according to the authority.

Still, in recent months, many transit workers and riders worried that they were seeing fewer offices in the subway.

Chief O’Reilly said the system was the subject of renewed focus in recent weeks.

Before the presidential election, “a lot of our transit resources were used topside to help with demonstrations and protests,’’ she said at an authority board meeting on Wednesday, “I can let you all know, as of today, 99 percent of those resources are now back in transit.”

Ali Watkins and Sean Piccoli contributed reporting.

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