(CNN)New York Attorney General Letitia James is launching an investigation into whether NYPD officers have illegally targeted people of color on the city's subways in their enforcement of fare evasion laws and regulations.
New York's attorney general is investigating whether the NYPD illegally targeted people of color for subway fare evasion
"We've all read the stories and seen the disturbing videos of men, women, and children being harassed, dragged away, and arrested by officers in our city's subway system, which is why we are launching an investigation into this deeply troublesome conduct," James said in a statement on Monday.
"If groups of New Yorkers have been unfairly targeted because of the color of their skin, my office will not hesitate to take legal action."
The NYPD denied allegations that it targeted people based on their race.
"The NYPD's transit officers patrol day and night to keep six million daily riders safe and enforce the law fairly and equally without consideration of race or ethnicity," Devora Kaye, the NYPD's acting deputy commissioner of public information, said in a statement.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the agency that oversees the city's subway and bus systems, said it was committed to working with the attorney general's office in its investigation.
"All MTA customers are entitled to fair and equal treatment under the law," MTA spokesperson Ken Lovett said in a statement. "Fare evasion is a $300 million annual problem that should be addressed in a way that does not unjustly target any specific group or community."
In a letter to New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, the attorney general's office asked that the NYPD provide more information on how it enforces fare evasion policies, including the number of officers assigned to patrol the city's subway stations each day, arrangements made between the NYPD and the MTA on enforcing fare evasion laws and data on fare evasion arrests and summonses broken down by race and age.
Six current and former NYPD officers have alleged in sworn statements that during the period between 2011 and 2015, a commander had urged them to go after black and Latino people for such offenses as jumping a turnstile, The New York Times reported in December.
The statement from the attorney general's office said that newly published data indicated that the alleged policy of targeting black and Latino riders could still be continuing today.
Between October 2017 and June 2019, black and Hispanic New Yorkers received nearly 70 percent of all civil summonses for fare evasion, despite making up just more than half of the city's population, the statement said. During that same period, the statement said they also accounted for nearly 90 percent of fare evasion arrests.
The announcement of the investigation was met with support from a number of city and state leaders.
"We can have better policing and safer streets and subways at the same time, and it's critical that issues of enforcement bias are found, highlighted, and corrected -- especially as the governor moves forward with his plan for unaccountable officers on our trains," New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams said in a statement.
New York authorities have ramped up enforcement of fare evasion policies on the city's transit system in recent months.
Last June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other New York officials announced a plan to add 500 additional officers to the city's transit system in an effort to deter people from not paying subway fares and to address assaults on transit workers.
The plan, which the governor's office said would cost $40 million over four years, also included other measures to deter riders from not paying fares, such as installing enhanced exit gates and more monitors and cameras.
The governor's office said in a statement at the time that the system had lost $225 million in 2018 from fare evasion, up from $105 million in 2015. In a proposed budget for 2020, the MTA later estimated that the system was losing $300 million in revenue annually from fare evasion.
The increased enforcement of fare evasion policies has outraged some New Yorkers.
A tweet posted by an editor at Allure Magazine in November criticizing the MTA for installing cameras at subway turnstiles went viral, with other users commenting that the money spent on deterring people from fare evasion could be better spent on fixing the city's crumbling transit system.
The NYPD was also the subject of protests in November after a video shared widely on social media showed officers fighting with teens at a subway station in the city, according to CNN affiliate WABC. Hundreds of people marched through downtown Brooklyn for hours to protest what they described as brutality by the NYPD.
That same month, video of NYPD officers detaining a woman selling churros in a subway station also sparked backlash.