Mask-Wearing MTA Chief Backs Mask-Averse NYPD As Mask-Mandate Enforcers

A gaggle (or is it a murder?) of NYPD officers not wearing masks at a recent protest. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
A gaggle (or is it a murder?) of NYPD officers not wearing masks at a recent protest. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye said he wasn’t concerned that NYPD cops, who have been spotted mask-less all over town, were being tapped to give out summonses to transit riders who didn’t wear masks.

“Police officers are wearing masks, the message has been communicated to [police] leadership and we’ll remain focused on it,” Foye said on Monday when asked if he was worried the NYPD’s reputation for shunning masks made them an awkward partner for enforcing the MTA’s new $50 fine against subway and bus riders who refuse to wear face covering.

Despite the fact that so many NYPD officers don’t wear masks that it inspired an entire Twitter account to track the behavior, Foye told reporters that he was confident the NYPD and MTA Police leaders could get the message across to their rank and file that they, too, were subject to the mask mandates.

Foye also declined to comment on fears that NYPD officers will write mask summons in the same racially biased manner with which they write other summonses. The NYPD’s own fare evasion data from early 2019 showed that almost 90 percent of fare evasion arrests were of Black and Latino New Yorkers, and 70 percent of summonses as well. Social distancing-related arrests and summonses were also directed overwhelmingly at Black and Latino New Yorkers according to a Legal Aid analysis earlier this year.

“I don’t accept the premise of the question,” was all Foye would say.

Police without masks became a common sight at Black Lives Matter protests earlier this summer, and helped inspire @NYPDMaskWatch, which recently documented an officer wearing a mask below his nose, which nullifies the mask’s ability to prevent transmission of coronavirus. Other New Yorkers, including Kevin Allison of the legendary comedy sketch show The State, have also reported coming across multiple unmasked police in the subway.

The MTA’s decision to have police issue fines to riders who don’t wear masks comes as the agency faces a mixed bag on mask compliance on it system. The transit agency has reported that over 90 percent of bus and subway riders wear masks on the system wear masks, but surveys have shown that 15 percent of mask wearers were wearing their face masks improperly. And bus drivers have reported being assaulted and harassed when they have asked riders to wear masks.

During the press conference on the fines, Foye said that the MTA had “no interest” in actually handing out the fines, and said that on his own subway ride that morning he saw just one rider without a mask — and that person was willing to put on the mask when it was offered by the agency bigwig. He said that the MTA was still offering riders free masks, through its Mask Force team and with mask dispensers on hundreds of buses. Foye also said he believed that a summons won’t be a first option for police officers.

“I think in many cases the first action will be, ‘Here’s a mask, put it on,’ no fine, no summons. We’re going to continue distributing millions of masks,” said Foye.

But Riders Alliance Communications Director Danny Pearlstein said that relying on police for enforcement ups the odds that something will go wrong.

“I do think the MTA is trying to have it both ways here, because they’d rather not drive up the number of negative interactions between police and riders, which is why we think this is a mistake,” said Pearlstein, who did emphasize that riders should wear masks on buses and trains. “On balance we would say don’t do this.”

Foye’s prediction of civil police-civilian interactions was also doubted by Shabazz Stuart, a Brooklyn-based businessman who often writes about racial bias of police.

“As a black guy in New York City, we know how things on paper work in practice. On paper, something goes down as, ‘I stopped and questioned someone for an open container,’ but in practice it’s usually more fraught and a much ruder an interaction,” said Stuart, founder and CEO of Oonee, the bike parking company. “There’s no real reason that New Yorkers, especially minority New Yorkers have to put faith in the police department that this will be carried out in a racially unbiased way.”

Stuart lamented that the city lacks the kind of public safety department that’s better-trained to deal with non-criminal matters like a mask mandate, since the consequences are so dire when even a basic civil enforcement goes wrong.

“Here’s the problem: the police are very bad at matters of deescalation,” Stuart said. “There’s this bravado the NYPD employs where their solution is to man or woman up for everything. How do you, in a manner that is proportional, deal with this? The NYPD isn’t proportional. This is the agency that responded to a guy selling loosies — and he ended up dead.”