NYC subway rider is fatally pushed onto tracks, reviving discussion about mental illness in system

Mar 26, 2024, 6:16 AM | Updated: 5:48 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — A man accused of fatally shoving another person into the path of an oncoming New York City subway train was described Tuesday by his mother and officials as having psychological issues, reviving discussion about how the city should respond to people experiencing mental health crises within the transit system.

The shoving victim, who has not been identified by authorities, was pushed onto the tracks inside an East Harlem subway station shortly before 7 p.m. Monday, police said. The operator of an oncoming train was unable to stop and the person was killed, police said.

The suspected shover, Carlton McPherson, 24, was arrested on a murder charge, a police spokesperson said. McPherson was awaiting arraignment in Manhattan criminal court Tuesday. No information about a defense attorney was available. A call to a Legal Aid attorney who has represented McPherson in a pending assault case in Brooklyn was not returned.

McPherson’s mother, Octavia Scouras, told The New York Times her son had been hospitalized for mental health treatment at least twice.

While violence in the nation’s largest transit system is rare, being shoved from a subway station’s narrow platform onto the track has long loomed large in riders’ fears.

The infrequent instances received heightened attention following a spike in crime during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the city debated how best to address homelessness and mental illness in the streets and underground.

Mayor Eric Adams renewed that discussion Tuesday, saying at a City Hall news conference that New York City still has a “severe mental health illness problem” that “played out on 125th Street and Lexington Avenue at the subway station.”

After taking office in 2022, Adams launched an effort to tackle crime and homelessness on the subway, sending more police, mental health and social service outreach workers into the system. His plan included involuntarily hospitalizing people, a move fiercely opposed by advocates for people with mental illness.

On Tuesday, he said city officials are still working to get homeless people with mental health issues into treatment. Nearly 7,000 people have checked into shelters since the push began, officials said.

“We’re there engaging people. Getting people connected to shelter,” said Anne Williams-Isom, Adams’ deputy mayor for health and human services. “It’s this concept of keeping them in shelter and getting them the support that they need so they’re not spiraling in and out of the system.”

Adams argued that the state should further expand 1999’s Kendra’s Law, which allows courts to order defendants with mental health issues to complete treatment. The law was named for Kendra Webdale, who died after being pushed onto the subway tracks by a man with a history of mental illness.

Adams said that although acts of violence like the fatal shove fuel the perception of lawlessness, subway crime is down nearly 6% since he took office in 2022.

“We hear this over and over again: The city’s out of control. It’s just not true,” Adams, a former transit police officer, said at the news conference.

Monday’s fatal push happened on the same day that New York City officials announced a plan to send 800 more police officers into the subway system to crack down on fare evasion and an hour after a city police officer was fatally shot during a traffic stop, the first member of the department to be killed in the line of duty in two years.

With subway ridership still lagging after the pandemic, a fall 2023 study by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority found many customers said they’d be more satisfied if the agency addressed “quality of life” concerns such as panhandling, as well as if there were fewer people “behaving erratically in the system.”

A smaller portion, around 30%, listed a more visible security presence as a top need. For some commuters, having more police officers around really makes a difference.

When a woman started yelling at Shanita Jones on her daily commute, an officer happened to be on the train.

“She was upset with me because I sat right next to her,” said Jones, who rides the subways seven days a week for her two jobs as a spa attendant and a home healthcare aide. “I told the officer, ‘I think she had a bad day.’”

In an effort to keep people off the tracks, the MTA has also recently been testing hip-high metal barriers at a handful of subway stations, though the fences have large gaps to allow travelers to get on and off trains.

John O’Callaghan, a commuter who works in the textiles industry, lamented the lack of platform safety features present in cities he visits for business, like Hong Kong, where plexiglass walls prevent access onto the tracks.

“I stand with my back to the beams, and that’s it,” O’Callaghan said.

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NYC subway rider is fatally pushed onto tracks, reviving discussion about mental illness in system