In a horrifying instant, a man walked up to a 40-year-old woman waiting for the subway in Times Square on Saturday morning and shoved her to the tracks as a train screeched into the station, killing her, the police said.
The attack, which appeared to be random, and which the police said had been committed by a man with a history of mental illness who may have been homeless, immediately brought new urgency to several of the city’s most pressing concerns: a rise in some forms of violent crime, in areas including the subway; a debate about how to deal with the hundreds of homeless people who seek refuge there; and a transit system in desperate financial straits struggling mightily to lure back riders.
It also poses a steep challenge to the two-week-old mayoralty of Eric Adams, a former police captain who ran as a crime-fighter with a heart for the dispossessed. Only nine days before, the mayor had announced with Gov. Kathy Hochul a plan to achieve police “omnipresence” in the subways while also stepping up outreach to homeless people by trained mental health professionals. Saturday’s was the second violent death in the subway in two weeks.
Mr. Adams said at a news conference at the subway station that the “senseless act of violence” was a stark example of the immediate need to tackle what he called a mental health crisis underground. “To lose a New Yorker in this fashion will only continue to elevate the fears of individuals not using our subway system,” he said.
The victim of the crime, Michelle Alyssa Go, was Asian, touching another hot button — hate crimes against Asian New Yorkers have risen sharply during the pandemic — but the police said there was no indication that she had been targeted because of her ethnicity.
The police said that Ms. Go, who lived on the Upper West Side, was standing on the platform around 9:30 a.m. when the man, identified as Simon Martial, 61, pushed her to the southbound tracks as an R train arrived. She died at the scene.
Mr. Martial then rode the subway to Lower Manhattan and told officers at the Canal Street station that he had pushed a woman onto the tracks, the police said. The Manhattan district attorney’s office said that charges against the man were being prepared.
The police said that he had had at least three previous encounters with the authorities related to mental health problems. Minutes before Ms. Go was pushed, he had confronted another female rider, who was not Asian, and put her in fear that he would push her to the tracks, they added.
Mr. Martial also had several previous arrests and two prison sentences, including one for an attempted robbery for which his parole had recently ended, according to the police and state records.
In the earlier subway death this year, a man was hit by a train on New Year’s Day when he jumped down to the tracks to help a man who had been attacked by a group of teenagers and fallen; two of the teenagers were charged with murder.
In the pantheon of urban crime, being randomly pushed in front of a subway train occupies a rung of the utmost horror; examples of it are seared into the city’s collective memory, going back to the 1980s and ’90s, when crime was far more rampant than it is now.
For much of the two years of the pandemic, the hollowed-out subway system, once New York’s beating heart, has become an emblem of a city rocked back on its heels, and the homeless people who have for decades made their home there — many of whom are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or both — have become the focus of consternation, fear and newspaper headlines.
In April 2020, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo held up a front page showing homeless people sprawled across the seats of otherwise empty trains and declared it “disgusting.”
In February 2021, after a man who lived in a homeless shelter stabbed four homeless people in and near subway stations, Mayor Bill de Blasio sent an extra 500 police officers to patrol the system. In May, amid another spate of attacks, Mr. de Blasio sent 250 more officers and said it would bring the number of police personnel patrolling the subway system to the highest level in the police transit bureau’s history.
And yet crime has persisted, though whether it has increased has been a subject of debate. Transit officials have emphasized that serious crimes in the system are at their lowest in decades, and major felonies were at their lowest combined total in 25 years through November.
But ridership has also been much lower — it is still at less than half of prepandemic levels — and the rate of violent crimes per million weekday passengers has spiked almost across the board compared with 2019.
The rate of felony assaults in 2021 through November was triple that in the same period in 2019. For those same periods, the rate of robberies per million riders more than doubled.
Many subway riders now complain of regular encounters with people who seem unhinged and threatening and have pleaded for help from elected officials.
To advocates for the homeless and the mentally ill, the confrontations have laid bare a crisis they have warned of for years: that the city’s systems for helping people with serious mental illness are woefully broken and under-resourced. Hospitals have closed psychiatric beds, and there is a chronic shortage of so-called “supportive housing,” which includes on-site social services and is widely seen as the best path to stability for someone with serious mental illness. Unstable and even violent people are often taken to hospital emergency rooms and then discharged because there is no place for them, some advocates for the homeless have alleged.
While the killing is likely to spur calls for a heavier police presence in the subway, the advocates cautioned against using it as an excuse to harass some of the most vulnerable people in the city.
“It’s a horrible tragedy, but that shouldn’t be a pretext for intensifying policing, which is where this will likely go,” said Craig Hughes, a supervising social worker at the Urban Justice Center. “The presence of more police doesn’t necessarily mean more safety, and for many homeless people, it means less safety.”
During his campaign for mayor, Mr. Adams vowed to find a way to make more psychiatric beds available, both hospital beds and so-called respite beds for people with mental illness who are not deemed sick enough to be admitted to a hospital but are too sick to return to a shelter or to the streets.
In their Jan. 6 announcement of a joint effort to make the subways safer, Mr. Adams and Ms. Hochul said that the more than 2,000 officers who are assigned to patrol the system will lead more frequent sweeps of subway platforms and trains.
The state also plans to develop small teams of social workers and medical professionals to provide services as homelessness on the streets and subways persists for thousands. Officials have said that transit officers will make referrals to those teams, with an aim of better addressing the needs of people who are homeless or who have mental illnesses.
Canella Gomez, the vice president of a union that represents train conductors and operators, said in a statement that he had spoken with the man who was operating the train that struck the woman on Saturday.
“No train operator comes to work expecting to have a passenger thrown in front of his or her train,” Mr. Gomez said. “This is the part of the job that no one is ever truly physically, mentally or emotionally prepared for.”
Michael Gold contributed reporting.