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MTA official and lifelong Brooklyn resident on attack at subway station

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

During this morning's rush hour, a gunman on a subway train in Brooklyn set off a smoke canister and then opened fire. At least 16 people were injured. The incident adds to a jump in violent crime in the city - including in the subway system - during this pandemic. Meanwhile, subway ridership remains well below pre-pandemic levels.

We wanted to hear from someone with deep knowledge of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York's mass transit. John Samuelsen is the international president of the Transport Workers Union and a member of the MTA board, as well as a lifelong New Yorker. Welcome.

JOHN SAMUELSEN: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. I understand you're a Brooklyn native. You still live there. Can I just ask, like, what went through your mind when you first heard about what happened this morning?

SAMUELSEN: Well, I live in southern Brooklyn, and both of my boys - I have a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old boy that take the subway every day. My oldest son happens to take the R train into downtown Brooklyn. So of course, the first thing on my mind is whether or not my son was going to school today. And...

CHANG: Yeah.

SAMUELSEN: ...As it turns out, he wasn't, and I'm thankful to God that he wasn't. So that was the first thing. And the second thing is these New York City transit workers that acted so heroically today, evacuating the multiple train stations - whether any of them got hurt. And also, thankfully, none of the workers were injured.

CHANG: Well, as a union representative, I'm curious - do you think the MTA is even remotely prepared for incidents like this, given that there has been a rise in transit crime in New York City recently? How do you feel?

SAMUELSEN: So there's been a rise in crime. The MTA, unto itself - not that I like to be in a position of defending the MTA; they're the people that I'm usually opposed to - but it's - the MTA is not responsible for policing the system. The city of New York is responsible for policing the system. Over the last several years, the policing of the system has deteriorated terribly.

With the election of our new mayor, Eric Adams, that's beginning to change. There's a commitment to increase - and it has been happening - increase the uniformed presence in the system. So that will...

CHANG: I was just going to ask if you have noticed an effect because, yes, Mayor Eric Adams has announced greater policing of subway crimes - both major and minor crimes. Do you feel those efforts are making some impact?

SAMUELSEN: I feel if the impact is not tangible yet, the impact will become very noticeable soon. A uniformed police presence in the subway - and I'm not talking about at the fare box. I'm not talking about the police watching out for 17-year-old kids engaging in mischief. I'm talking about cops actually riding the trains where our workers are and where New York City transit riders are. And there's a commitment to make that happen. They've increased the level of uniformed police dramatically, so it's going to have an effect.

CHANG: Well, ultimately, New York City - it's still a very different city than it was 20, 30 years ago, when crime was a lot higher. Are you concerned that what happened today is going to further discourage people from riding the subway? I mean, ridership still hasn't gotten back to pre-pandemic levels.

SAMUELSEN: I think it would be foolish to believe that this would not have an impact. Of course, just as we were getting back on our legs, just as riders were coming back into the system - this was the worst possible time for it to happen. This is an anomaly. It's a - it's very likely a lone wolf gunman - a lunatic that came onto the train. And New York City has dealt with these type of things in the past, and I believe we'll work with - work our way through it, and folks will continue to get back on the subway. That's my hope.

CHANG: And you feel personally safe, still, to continue riding the subway as a New Yorker?

SAMUELSEN: Yeah, I feel safe. My children ride the subway every day. I have conversations with them about how to protect themselves on the subway. Always stand near a conductor is the No. 1 advice that I give them - always ride the conductor car. And the conductors proved heroic today in the evacuation of the system. It wouldn't have happened...

CHANG: Right.

SAMUELSEN: ...Without the train crews.

CHANG: That is John Samuelsen, a member of the MTA board. Thank you very much for joining us today.

SAMUELSEN: Ah, thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.