Ears Plugged? Keep Eyes Open, Subway’s IPod Users Are Told
Allison Emmett, 26, a lawyer who lives in the West Village, has rules for riding the subway while listening to her iPod. “You keep it in your bag,” she said. “You keep your bag in front of you. You keep your hand on it.”
Sarit Sela, 27, an administrator at Goldman Sachs who lives in Astoria, Queens, said she kept her iPod in a handbag, secured by a clip. “When I’m on the subway, I try not to change the music,” she said.
Both women had heard about recent thefts of iPods, the digital music players that retail for $99 to $449, depending on the model. But the extent of the problem was not apparent until yesterday, when the New York City police reported that an increase in subway crime this year was driven almost entirely by a sharp rise in robberies and thefts of cellphones and especially of iPods, which have become a totem of prosperous urban life. Many of the victims are young people who are robbed after school.
Yesterday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced a series of safety advertisements that may alter the habits of iPod users. Some have already stopped using belt clips and instead stow the devices inside their clothing, while others have jettisoned the signature white earphones in favor of less distinctive ones. But none of the riders interviewed yesterday seemed willing to abandon their personal soundtracks altogether to experience the sounds of the subway along with everyone else.
Just as officials in the high-crime 1980’s warned riders to beware of chain-snatchers and pickpockets, so are they now suggesting that iPod users avoid standing out. “Earphones are a giveaway,” one announcement says ominously. “Protect your device.”
It seems that the iPod has joined a list of sought-after products – Air Jordan sneakers, shearling coats, gold necklaces, boom-box radios and pricy leather jackets among them – that have been targets over the years. “We went through a period when you could track crime by the price of gold,” said Michael F. O’Connor, the chief of transit police from 1992 to 1995, recalling the chain snatchings of an earlier era.
Small digital devices now seem to be the prize catch.
Most of the cases involve young people taking iPods from other young people, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said. “A lot of it happens after school, the kind of tumult that you see when children or young people are getting on the subway station at dismissal time.”
The numbers may seem small: 50 iPods (and other digital music players) and 165 cellphones stolen so far this year, up from zero and 82, respectively, last year.
But the trend has had a noticeable effect on subway crime figures.
In the first three months of 2005, the total number of major felonies committed in the subway rose to 891 from 753, an 18.3 percent increase from the same period a year earlier, even as the number of arrests, summonses and ejections from the subway fell during the same period.
The size of the increase can be attributed partly to the unusually low crime figures from a year ago, when more patrols were put in the subways following the Madrid train bombing. And there are already indications that serious felonies are declining this month, the police said.
Moreover, if thefts of iPods and cellphones are excluded, serious crime has actually fallen 3 percent so far this year, compared with last year, according to Michael J. Farrell, the deputy commissioner for strategic initiatives, who gave a presentation to the transportation authority’s board yesterday.
Mr. Farrell said subway crime was still low by historical measures, even as average daily ridership has risen 21 percent since 1997. He also sought to allay concerns by board members that the policing in the subways has diminished.
There are 2,675 officers in the Transit Bureau, he said, compared with 2,757 in 1997.
Michael J. Scagnelli, the Police Department’s chief of transportation, said most of the thefts involved threats of violence or displays of knives, while others were simple snatch-and-run robberies.
It does not appear that the criminals are reselling the music players and phones. “We’re not seeing a secondary market,” said Paul J. Browne, a police spokesman. “They’re not being fenced in any significant numbers.”
The motive is more personal, Chief Scagnelli said. “The thieves are upgrading their cellphones.”
Henry Jenkins, the director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described the thefts as a consequence of unequal access to technology. “The participation gap creates techno-envy, where the kids who are locked out of participation in the culture covet those tools and devices that are considered essential to being a young person,” he said.
New York officials were reluctant to discourage iPod use. “I would never tell someone to listen to music or not listen to music,” Chief Scagnelli said. Apple Computer, which makes the iPod, did not respond to requests for comment.
Next month, New York City Transit will post notices in subway cars warning owners of cellphones, music players and purses to stay alert. “Don’t make them as easy a target for robberies as they are now,” said Lawrence G. Reuter, the agency’s president.
Police Chief William J. Bratton of Los Angeles, who was chief of the New York transit police from 1990 to 1992 and later the police commissioner, said that riders listening to music were particularly vulnerable.
“One of the problems with people walking around with iPods is they’re totally oblivious to things going on around them,” he said. “If you’re a thief, you’ll look for that person not only because you’ll get a valuable piece of equipment, but because the person is less conscious of what’s going on around them.”
Mr. Bratton said he rode the New York subways twice during a visit last week and found them to be in shabby condition.
“When you have subway cars that are filthy – and the ones I was riding in were a mess – and it looks like there’s no one in charge, the temptation to commit crime is more significant,” he said.
Autor: Sewell Chan