Concern About Crime Stymies Return to Office in New York City

New York business leaders say the perception of a lack of public safety, particularly on transit, has office workers staying home. But what’s the reality?

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For New York City commuters, COVID-19 isn’t the only terror lurking in the subway system. 

The deaths last month of two people pushed in front of subway trains in Manhattan was yet another chapter in the heated debate about public safety. But it also heightened concerns that rising crime could hamper New York City’s economic recovery from the pandemic — particularly for those considering restarting their commutes to and from the office. 

SEE ALSO: Half of D.C. and NYC Residents Worked Remote in 2021

Business leaders are worried that crime will keep office workers away from their desks, causing restaurants, food carts, shops and other businesses in the city’s commercial districts to continue to see limited trade from commuters, disrupting the city’s economic food chain. But given that overall crime in New York City has declined for nearly 30 years, those fears may be running ahead of reality. 

In a meeting with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in January, Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of private equity giant Blackstone, said it was difficult to get people back in the office if they didn’t feel safe, the New York Post reported. In a 75-person call with the Partnership for New York City, 30-some business leaders said their employees were scared of rising crime and some called subway safety a bigger concern than the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 40,000 people in New York City since it began in 2020. 

“Personal security concerns compete with COVID-19 as a reason for not returning to the office,” Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, said in a statement to Commercial Observer. 

Wylde said her members have increased armed security in and around the workplace, provided transport for staffers, kept a remote work option, worked with nonprofit groups to help manage those experiencing homelesness in office areas, reduced business hours to prevent  employees from having to take public transit at night, and worked closely with the New York Police Department (NYPD).

Public safety concerns can have a broader economic impact as fewer workers in the office results in a reduction of visitors patronizing stores and restaurants near their offices, Randy Peers, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, told Commercial Observer.

“Public safety is the precursor to any economic recovery,” Peers said. “Some of the headlines are overblown, but clearly there have been some real tragedies recently, particularly with people being pushed onto the tracks. … Addressing transit is so important because we need to get people back to the office to ensure that they’re supporting small businesses.”

Anxiety is certainly on the rise, but is that apprehension based on the perception of crime or the reality? For Jessica Lappin, the president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, it’s a little of both. Lappin said she hadn’t heard specific concerns about transit crime from members of the alliance — an organization that manages and advocates for residents and businesses in Lower Manhattan.

“There is some concern that a perception about a decrease in safety will be the next hurdle in getting people to come back to work,” Lappin said. “Some of the headlines are overblown, but clearly there have been some real tragedies recently, particularly with people being pushed onto the tracks.”

Some residents have even compared the city today to the Gotham of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s — despite the fact that the city is statistically far safer. Crime overall has been in decline for nearly 30 years. In 2000 there were 184,652 incidents that fell into seven major felony offense categories — ranging from grand larceny to rape and murder. In 2020 there were 95,593 major felonies for the year, according to the NYPD. In 2021, major felonies were at their lowest total in 25 years, The New York Times reported.

Those who lived in New York City during the 1990s and earlier agree that New York is nowhere near its past reputation. The city saw 468 homicides in 2020 compared to 1,814 homicides in 1980 — though 2020’s homicide rate represented a 41 percent increase from 2019 and the highest rate since 2011. The city’s high crime rate in the 1970s in particular fed into its reputation, which was also enforced by the city’s own police, corrections officers and firefighters. Some of them distributed pamphlets titled, “Welcome to Fear City,” in 1975, with the image of the grim reaper embossed on the cover, as frustrations mounted over plans to lay off public employees during the city’s financial crisis.

“It’s a false comparison,” Peers said. “I grew up in Brooklyn. I was born in 1970. I’ve lived through the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s. To me it’s a silly comparison. The city was in a very different place back then.”

While crime is down historically, transit crime has returned to subway and bus lines faster than riders, making the half-empty cars feel scarier than the bustling trains back when masks were something you wore on Halloween.

Today’s average subway rider is seeing about half the number of people on train cars than before the pandemic began, with ridership for the last week of January holding steady at just over 48 percent of pre-pandemic levels during weekdays and up to 56 percent over the weekend, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That’s an increase from 2020, when ridership dropped to about 27 percent of 2019 levels, but the subway system today remains a far cry from the bustling stations before the pandemic. 

Crime on subway lines and bus routes, including the Staten Island Railway, dropped alongside ridership in the first year of the pandemic, from 2019 to 2020, according to the NYPD. The number of complaints of transit crime dropped nearly 30 percent, to 3,411 from 4,714, from 2019 to 2020, and arrests dropped as well — nearly 40 percent, to 576 from 925, in that same period. 

Even though ridership is low, transit crime at least initially appears to be rising faster than riders this year. Overall crime in the transit system was up 75 percent in January 2022 compared with January 2021. In the first 23 days of January this year,  the greatest share of crime was larceny at 69 cases, followed by robbery and felony assault at 39 and 36, respectively, according to the NYPD. There was one murder in that 23-day period, compared to none in the same period last year. (Overall, murder and manslaughter are fairly low on public transport, at two and no instances in 2016 and 2017, respectively, though they hit a five-year peak at five such deaths in 2020.)

At the same time, felony assaults increased to 423 in 2021 from 373 in 2019, despite the dip in ridership. Felony assaults were on the rise prior to the pandemic, reaching 321 in 2018 from 303 in 2016, according to NYPD data. And it’s this violent crime that’s scaring New Yorkers and potentially creating another obstacle to the city’s recovery, Peers said.

“Perception does matter,” Peers said. “Crime is on the uptick. Petty crime is down, and that’s a good thing, but as violent crime goes up, that actually fuels the perception more so than any other type of crime.”

That atmosphere of fear was only compounded by the pandemic and the constant barrage of bad news people could easily view from their phones, said Alyssa Petersel, founder and CEO of MyWellbeing, a company that matches clients with therapists. People may have become used to staying home as well, making excursions outside of that environment more nerve-wracking, she added. 

“We are exposed constantly day in and day out to not only different stimuli and different news alerts, but often the most alarming and the most fear-inducing alerts and current events,” Petersel said. “Those things may not have been coming at us at quite the velocity in years past. The acceleration of technology and notifications both exposes us to quite a broad set of information, which can be a tremendous asset and advantage, but is something that we need to be mindful of.”

Some of those headlines may be exaggerated as well. The New York Post reported that Bank of America instructed its staff at the end of last year not to wear company-branded attire to avoid being targeted for crime, though it was unclear if any of the banking giant’s staff had been harassed at the time. A source inside the company told Commercial Observer that the Post’s reporting was not completely accurate. The bank did not change its dress code policy out of safety concerns, according to the source.

And New York white-collar office workers, most of whom appear to still work remotely, often have more options to avoid the subway system altogether. Citibank, for example, has offered private shuttles to its employees, and larger financial and law firms often provide car services for employees working overtime. (Citibank did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) 

Petersel, who commutes to her offices in Manhattan about half the time she’s in New York, said she feels safe on the subway. Her staff is mostly working remotely, and Petersel said she hadn’t heard concerns from them about traveling in the city. But for those feeling anxious, she recommended breathing exercises, connecting with friends and seeing a therapist. 

For those with the option to work from home, it might be difficult to convince anyone to come back to the concrete jungle with crime topping off their COVID-19 fears, said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

“In 1990 we had a peak of 26 murders on the subway, but you had no choice but to take the subway if you wanted to be engaged in life in New York City. You had to go to work,” Gelinas said. “Today, that’s very different. There is an option to work at home for professional white-collar workers and they’ve been doing it for two years. … Having this extra fear is certainly not helping the situation.”

More employers may begin to offer flexibility with work from home, shorter work hours to avoid peak travel times, and the addition of car services — especially as companies struggle to retain employees and fill open positions, said Maurice “Mo” Cayer, a lecturer in the University of New Haven’s department of psychology and management. But Cayer does not expect the uptick in crime to have a huge impact on the majority of office workers. 

New York Mayor Eric Adams is also taking action, after several incidents — like a stray bullet striking an 11-month-old girl in the Bronx and the fatal shootings of two police officers in Harlem in late January — catapulted crime to the center stage. Adams created a plan to address gun violence in the city, with initiatives ranging from increasing community hiring programs to calling on the state legislature to raise penalties for gun-related offenses, including for minors. And the real estate community is looking for solutions, while cheering on the crime-fighting initiatives of officials such as Adams.

“Comprehensively addressing public safety and quality of life concerns will play a critical role in stimulating economic activity in New York City’s central business districts and advancing a strong recovery,” James Whelan, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said in a statement. “We are pleased that Gov. [Kathy] Hochul and Mayor Adams have made this a priority for their administrations and we look forward to working with them accordingly.”

Adams, a former NYPD captain, also called for reinstating a controversial plainclothes NYPD unit that was dismantled in 2020, seven years after its stop and frisk tactics were declared unconstitutional, and residents and civil rights advocates complained that the unit targeted people of color and that its members used excessive force. 

Stop and frisk was not necessarily effective either — in 2011, at the height of stop-and-frisk policing, the city still recorded an increased number of shootings compared to the two years prior, The New York Times reported. The mayor has said that the plainclothes police unit would operate differently than in the past, though he has not provided specifics on how. 

Adams and Hochul both announced plans to deploy “hundreds” more police officers to subway stations, though details on those plans are scant and Adams did not respond to a request for comment. President Joe Biden met with the two elected officials on Feb. 3 to promise the city more resources for community policing and a crackdown on illegal, untraceable gun sales. 

Such plans may not make all city residents feel safer — Black and brown people are often disproportionately the target of policing, representing 90 percent of fare-related arrests from October 2017 to June 2019. Attorney General Letitia James even opened an investigation into whether the police were discriminating against people of color in enforcing fare evasion on subways and buses. Adams’ gun violence plan also includes changing the bail system to allow the detention of more people — something the state legislature would have to change — even though there is no correlation between limiting the use of cash bail for non-violent offenders and an increase in violent crime, according to CNN.

But Peers said that the mere physical presence of police would go a long way to making New Yorkers feel safe, even if they’re not detaining people. And more than 230 business, labor and civic leaders in the city in January signed a letter supporting Adams’ gun violence plan.

“When it comes to perception and people feeling safe, a physical presence of transit police in the system [and] on the platform will go a long way in convincing New Yorkers that the subways are safe again,” Peers said. “We’re not asking the police to go into the subways and detain people, we’re asking the police to have a visible presence in the subway system. … No one’s asking the police to go down and stop and frisk and do the things that we know were not appropriate in the past.”

Celia Young can be reached at cyoung@commercialobserver.com