Suspected Times Square shooter used a well-worn escape method: the NYC subway system

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By Dan Sears

Police were within reach of a man they say shot a bystander and fired at an officer after a botched robbery in Times Square Thursday night — but when the suspect entered the city’s vast subway system he was able to flee into the night.

New York City’s transit system is one of the busiest and most comprehensive in the world — that often makes it a backdrop of crime and the means of escape for criminals. Even with wall-to-wall cameras outside the station and surveillance within, suspects have been able to elude capture by running on the tracks, though busy stations or even simply by getting on trains.

On Thursday night, police chased the shooting suspect into the subway station at the corner of West 47th Street and 6th Avenue, after he’d allegedly tried to steal from a sports store in Times Square, shot a bystander in the leg and fired at police.

Once the suspect reached the station, the officers lost track of him, according to a briefing by NYPD officials after the incident. He later appeared on surveillance footage making his way onto the tracks, changing clothes and dashing back out of the subway station to parts unknown, said NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell.

There are more than 10,000 surveillance cameras in the subway system, the MTA told Gothamist in 2022 shortly after a mass subway shooting at Sunset Park’s 36th Street subway station that injured more than two dozen people.

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“The problem with cameras though, is it’s really only good for after the fact, right? It’s not really like a preventative tool,” said Christopher Herrmann, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Law & Police Science at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Video footage from subway stations often helps police identify suspects in the wake of a crime, but cameras usually can’t help while the chase is still underway: only about half of the MTA’s cameras feed live footage to public safety officials, according to the MTA. The rest only record footage locally, so they need to be specifically accessed after an incident, per the transit agency

Then it can take hours or days for police to comb through the thousands of people that pass by one fixed point in the MTA’s system.

Last month, the man who allegedly shot and killed a school crossing guard on a Brooklyn 3 train got off at a subsequent stop and disappeared. He has still not been arrested.

In October, police spent a day searching for suspect Sabir Jones after he allegedly pushed a 30-year-old woman into a moving E train and fled the subway station at 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue. He was arrested near a PATH train station in Newark.

And Frank James, the shooter accused of injuring 30 people on a train in 2022, eluded capture for more than 24 hours.

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“The subway stations are typically what we call ‘crime generators,’” Herrmann said. “Whenever you have increased people traffic, you’re going to get increased crime, and that’s because offenders want to go to places where they can have their selection of victims.”

Though all of the subway system’s 472 stations have surveillance cameras, they’re not always working perfectly.

A 2018 audit by the state comptroller’s office found that MTA technicians were behind on camera repairs and maintenance for many cameras in the system. A year later, the agency had stepped up its maintenance routine but still lagged behind on repairs, the comptroller’s office said.

By the time of the Sunset Park subway shooting, some cameras at the station had been broken for days. But other working cameras along the line helped the NYPD identifyJames, tracking his movements to the East Village where he was arrested a day later.

After the Sunset Park shooting, Gothamist requested camera maintenance and repair records through New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The MTA rejected the request, arguing that sharing this information would compromise riders’ safety.

On Friday, MTA officials said all cameras were up and running throughout the Times Square area before, during and after the incident.

With all the cameras around Times Square in general, Herrmann said it’s only a matter of time before more footage emerges of Thursday night’s suspect. But he also said it’s only a matter of time before Times Square becomes the setting for another crime – given its location, the crowds and the ease of transportation.

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“If I’m the bad guy, it makes it cheap for me to get there, and then it makes it cheap for me to get away as well,” Herrmann said. “The subway becomes the main thoroughfare for transit in and around Midtown.”

Stephen Nessen contributed reporting.

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