(I apologize that this is not directly related to the topics I usually cover here. I just had to write about this.)
True story: I am riding a particular downtown subway home, late on a Thursday evening (around 2:30am), all the way from one far-away borough to my home in another. Due to exhaustion and a long subway ride, I fall asleep. Because the subway is almost empty (there are maybe 5 other passengers in the car), I stretch my legs out across the seats next to me.
About five stops from my destination, I am awoken by a tall male cop telling me that “I can’t do that.” In my sleepy state of confusion, I quickly sit up, not knowing what is going on. The police officer then asks me to stand up and step off the train (this is not my final destination). I say with confusion, “Can’t I just go home? I’m only a few stops away.” He repeats, “Please step off the train.”
As I leave the train car and enter the station, I hear a series of gasps behind me, presumably other passengers who are as astonished as I am. The police officer then proceeds to interrogate me, without really explaining the reason I have been removed from the train. As the doors close and the train moves on, I sigh, knowing that this altercation has just added at least 30 minutes to my already long trip home. But my situation only gets worse, as I sit down on a bench and continue to answer the police officers questions: “Where are you going? Where do you live? Do you have identification?”
He begins to talk over his radio, and I still have no idea what is really going on. Three more uniformed police officers come over, and at this point I am surrounded. Now, let me just clarify that I was neither intoxicated nor doing anything more threatening than sleeping on the subway, apparently taking up too much space. Apparently this was enough to warrant the involvement of FOUR police officers.
The cop proceeded with what turned out to be a background check, to see if I had any warrants for my arrest or outstanding tickets. Since when does sleeping on the subway correlate with criminal behavior? I felt completely belittled and distrusted, being treated as a criminal for doing something that I was not even aware was a violation. I finally ask for clarification about what my crime was, and one of the other three cops standing around me shows me his violation book with a paragraph highlighted about taking up more than one subway seat. Never before had I seen anything of the sort listed.
After what felt like a ridiculously long amount of time (and reassurance that in fact, there were no outstanding warrants for my arrest), the cop gave me what he called a “summons,” which amounted to a $50 ticket or an appearance in court. For taking up more than one seat on a mostly empty train at 3am on a weekday. I asked if there was any type of warning for this, since it was my first offense. The cop gruffly responded, this is the warning, it’s either this or arrest. Apparently my offense was agregious enough to merit handcuffs and a lock up.
An hour later, I finally arrive at my apartment, frazzled and full of questions.
Is this really what the NYPD should be spending their time doing?
What risk does taking up more than one seat on the subway really pose? If it is an issue of courtesy, is it really the law enforcement’s place to be forcing courtesy on people by fining them?
Why do officers have to treat people with such disdain and distrust?
Would I have been treated differently if I was a man? If I was dressed differently? If I had cried and begged for forgiveness?
What about all the asshole men on the subway during rush hour with their legs spread wide to discourage someone sitting next to them? Where are their tickets?!?!
Why do I feel so violated?
While this incident is in fact a pretty minor one, it has really made me question the role that the police force plays in society. The police are supposed to make people feel safer, instead, they make me feel guilty (even though most of the time, I’VE DONE NOTHING WRONG). This was true before the subway incident, but it has been extremely exacerabated by this experience. Furthermore, I never felt unsafe on the subway until that night, when I was treated with utter disrespect for the most minor of infractions. How does making everyone feel guilty until proven innocent really make our country a safer place?
I recognize that these issues reflect a larger sense of distrust in our own criminal justice system, and incidences like the Sean Bell shooting only serve to affirm (particularly for people of color and low-income people) that the police should be feared. It’s a sad state of affairs.
And I did some quick google research on similar subway violations–apparently a woman was given a $50 ticket for putting her bag of groceries on the seat next to her on an empty train. She later fought the fine in court and won. Ridiculous.