The Chief

November 12, 1999

PBA Helps Squash Subway Sting Plan

Safir: Not My Idea


An operation aimed at luring fugitive felons into the city's subway system by mailing them specially marked free MetroCards was called off Nov. 4 in the face of mounting criticism, much of it generated by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

Used Fox in Hunt

The MetroCards, specially imprinted with a picture of the actor Michael J. Fox, were mailed out to 1OO suspects wanted for violent crimes. The cards were also coded for student fares. Police Officers routinely look for overage riders using student cards, particularly during off-school hours.

Shortly after a memorandum was sent out from George F. Brown, Chief of the NYPD Transit Division, explaining the operation, Transit cops began expressing concern over the plan, with many of them contacting the PBA. The union in turn approached the department to voice its concerns and also reported the plan to the media.

"Cops were saying that giving these people free access to the subways was dangerous, not only for themselves, but for the riding public," said PBA President Patrick J. Lynch.

Transit cops are alerted to the use of a student fare card by an amber light that goes on at the turnstile.

"When that amber light goes on, it's usually just a student," Mr. Lynch said, "but now you'd have cops looking for it as a signal to apprehend a felon in a crowded situation."

The PBA president said that the idea of attempting to lure violent criminals into the subway system was especially flawed given problems Transit cops presently face with an antiquated radio system that prevents them from effectively communicating. "You've got dead spots where you can't even call for help if you want to," he said.

Another obvious problem with the operation was the likelihood that the targeted felons would give the cards to friends or family members.

Mistakes Likely

"Then you'd have a life-threatening situation turn into a career-threatening situation," Mr. Lynch said. Cops spotting someone using the Michael Fox card and assuming that they were dealing with a violent criminal could find that they had subdued and arrested someone who had no criminal charges pending. "Then you're facing CCRB (Civilian Complaint Review Board) complaints that never come off a cop's record," the PBA president said.

Mr. Lynch contrasted the scheme to previous sting operations in which fugitive suspects were lured to police with an offer of free Super Bowl tickets or trips to Atlantic City. "When you try to get them to come in some place for a prize you have a controlled situation, with the proper number of police there," Mr. Lynch said.

Police Commissioner Howard Safir, who has claimed that he invented the prize-for-felons ruse while heading the U.S. Marshals' Service, disowned the MetroCard scheme, saying it was different in its execution than the original proposal presented to him.

"The execution of the plan as described in this teletype that went out from the Transit Bureau is not the way I want it done or would approve of it being done, and I had nothing to do with that one," Mr. Safir said at a Nov. 4 news conference with Mayor Giuliani.

"I guess it just fell through the cracks," Mr. Lynch said when asked how he thought the NYPD had initiated such a plan. "What I don't understand is, if we're mailing it to their homes, why don't we just put together a team and go out and pick them up?"

"I just wish they would reach out to us more and maybe these things wouldn't happen," the PBA president said. "You've got a lot of cops out there and they're pretty smart."