Markfield: ‘More’ can’t be the solution


Courtesy of AJ Colores via Unsplash

Columnist Harrison Markfield argues in favor of an honest discussion about the police and security system following the April subway shooting in New York City. 

Harrison Markfield

On Tuesday, April 12, 2022, a man — now identified as Frank R. James — set off smoke grenades on a crowded subway car in the diverse Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, fired 33 shots from a 9mm handgun and wounded as many as sixteen people. He has since been identified and arrested. 

However, none of the police officers whose paths James crossed were able to do anything. Some security cameras in the station did not work, the officers’ radios were inoperable on the train and the security state’s failures were laid bare for the nth time. 

I think it important at this point to say that I do not condone James’ actions; that the argument I wish to make is instead an accusation against the city of New York and its police and security spending, that these failures are part of a nationwide and societal trend and that for our collective sake, we cannot continue to acquiesce to the demands that will be made in the coming days and weeks, likely until the midterm elections in November.

New York City’s police budget in 2020 was $11 billion. That figure is higher than the next few largest American cities combined and would be the 23rd largest sovereign military budget in the world, between Singapore and Algeria.

Just recently, Mayor Eric Adams — himself a former officer with a unique relationship to policing and a man whom I have previously made a critical remark towards in a column — increased the department’s budget for public transit control and surveillance, primarily aimed at stopping fare evaders and unhoused people from taking shelter in terminals. It hasn’t entirely been successful. The policy was part of a wider initiative to punish houseless people citywide, with police breaking up encampments but not providing those people with any shelter or necessities.


Adams is not the first New York City mayor to do this, nor will he be the last, but his choices feel especially frustrating given the outspoken opposition to increased police funding and growing evidence that punishing crime does not solve or deter crime, nor do preventative measures seem to do enough. 

All of this to say that diverting public spending from police towards social services — like providing stable, long-term housing for people who might otherwise lack it, or making that housing safe and affordable — is a vital step towards societal improvement. 

And yet, America is constantly enrapt in the overtures of the security state: that the world is constantly dangerous, there is always something or someone trying to hurt you; and that at almost every local level, spending billions of dollars to repel these threats — some vague and rhetorical, some real and based in struggle — by giving officers robots and armored vehicles is easier or more just than stopping the things that cause them. And if it doesn’t work, just double down

It’s an argument that drives wedges through every division in American society, where people who look a lot like me and who have likely never had a reason to feel unsafe around the authorities can proclaim, from their suburban kitchen tables, there to be no issue. It’s something that I heard more than once growing up in southwest Connecticut, a place full of commuters to and from “The City” just twenty-five miles away but who fancied themselves too good to live among its problems.

But, following last Tuesday’s attack that I can only assume will be lionized by liberals as a cry for better police and by conservatives as a cry for more police — and likely by Adams for both — I think the answer, or at least where not to look for the answer, has laid itself bare: more policing, more bodycams, more training, more money will not solve the problem.

As author Alex Vitale states on the cover of his book “The End of Policing” — the book you may have seen Sen. Ted Cruz flap his arms with at the confirmation for Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson a few weeks back — the problem is policing itself. (I do recommend the book, by the way; it’s been a very eye-opening read.)

A budget of $11 billion could not stop, discourage or even identify James until he dropped a credit card on the subway; he was found instead by a 21-year-old who helped install the cameras. Instead, they harass homeless people, they harass fare avoiders who can’t afford the $2.75 to get on the train but also can’t afford to not ride, they harass people of color, and they harass anyone who looks at an officer funny

If those $11 billion were spent fixing the source of social issues instead of reactively lashing against them, if any of those dollars had been spent helping someone who had already been arrested twelve times — who the state had twelve opportunities to help and never sufficiently did — I don’t want to be so naïve as to say that a crime could never happen in such a society, but I do believe to the core that the conditions that allow for the continued importance of the carceral state would erode and perhaps cease to exist entirely. And that sounds like a better society to me.

If 11 billion dollars isn’t enough to stop someone from committing an act of terror or apprehend the perpetrator, — it certainly doesn’t clear homicides or stop other problems — why do we allow ourselves to accept the idea that $12 billion will be the answer? Or even $13 billion? I’ve mentioned homelessness multiple times in this piece, but the city’s police budget could house every unsheltered person in the five boroughs multiple times over with plenty to spare for a gentler system of community problem-solving that doesn’t require the violence and mistrust that propagates the current one.

And this isn’t just a New York problem: every city in America needs to reckon with its relationship to policing, and we all have to have honest discussions about who is best served by the system as it stands today. I imagine the coming days will be fraught with discourse about what should or must be done, and I fear for what policies may come from it. But to me, this much is clear. More of the same is no longer an acceptable option.

Harrison Markfield is a sophomore in community and regional planning.