NYPD Out of MTA: School Safety Agents To Hand Out Masks And Social Distancing Reminders

There's a hiring freeze, but no official cop rollback. Photo: Caitlin Plaut
There's a hiring freeze, but no official cop rollback. Photo: Caitlin Plaut

School safety agents will give straphangers free masks and remind them about social distancing protocols, the mayor announced on Monday morning, instead of giving the job to the NYPD’s more controversial unit: uniformed cops.

“We are sending approximately 800 school safety agents who will be in stations, educating New Yorkers, giving out those free face coverings, helping people to feel comfortable when they take that subway ride,” the mayor said at a news conference at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he announced other transportation initiatives.

Streetsblog asked Mayor de Blasio why school safety agents — who are also cops — are better fit than rank-and-file NYPD officers.

“School safety agents are trained to work with parents, work with kids, they have a different approach,” he said. “They are not there to do enforcement. It’s about free face coverings, education, just reminding people that if one car is crowded, go to the next car, that kind of thing. We think that human presence, that communication helps, especially free face coverings.”

The mayor’s decision to use school safety agents comes after the MTA had asked the city to dramatically ramp up the police presence on the subway as the economy begins to reopen.

“Given the anguish and chaos the city has experienced over the last week, the MTA is requesting the city deploy additional NYPD immediately to the subway to ensure the safety and security of the system,” the tai-state transit agency wrote to the city last week. When asked about that request on Friday, New York City Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg said that she didn’t believe in using MTA Police to do enforcement around social distancing measures, but that someone had to do it:

In order to enforce mask usage, that’s something that we count on the MTA Police and NYPD for. And in the back and forth between MTA and City Hall, as enforcement of social distancing came up, something we thought was important for everyone to understand is first of all, the MTA does not believe that it’s necessarily possible to get six feet of social distance in the New York City transit system. and second, if someone wants that enforced, that’s going to land on NYPD and police and law enforcement, not on bus and train operators.

School safety agents, who are unarmed, took over social distancing enforcement on city streets after the de Blasio administration moved the NYPD off the job in May after statistics showed that 90 percent of social distancing summonses went to people of color — and several brutal scenes were captured on video. It’s unclear if the NYPD-trained school guards will satisfy some advocates, who have questioned their use in schools. Others say school security officers should be overseen by the Department of Education, not the less-accountable NYPD. The agents have been criticized for making students feel criminalized and for constantly putting students in contact with the city’s policing system.

Transit advocates welcomed the free masks, but said they would prefer if the city found a way to do the job without any kind of police officer being tasked with it.

“It’s good to see more people handing out masks in transit, but that shouldn’t be a police function,” said Riders Alliance spokesperson Danny Pearlstein. “Riders should feel safe accepting a mask without fear of the consequences of an interaction with law enforcement.”