NEW YORK — The underground acrobats who flip, somersault and pole-dance among New York City subway riders as trains roll are drawing a new audience -- police officers.
The New York Police Department is cracking down on the subway showmen who use the tight quarters of the nation's busiest transit system as moving stages for impromptu -- and illegal -- pass-the-hat performances. More than 240 people have been arrested on misdemeanors related to acrobatics so far this year, compared with fewer than 40 at this time a year ago.
Police Commissioner William Bratton acknowledges he is targeting subway acrobats as part of his embrace of the "broken windows" theory of policing -- that low-grade lawlessness can cultivate a greater sense of disorder and embolden more dangerous offenders.
"Is it a significant crime? Certainly not," Mr. Bratton said recently. But the question is, he added, "Does it have the potential both for creating a level of fear as well as a level of risk that you want to deal with?"
The subway acrobats say they're just out to entertain, make a living and put a little communal levity in New York's no-eye-contact commuting.
"It's such a part of New York culture," said rider Joli Tribuzio, an actress.
But other passengers resent becoming a captive audience for acrobats and break-dancers in a cramped subway car.
"I don't like all that action right in front of my face," rider Kesia Hudson said.
Police believe most riders agree with Ms. Hudson. And though no injuries have been reported, they also insist the showmanship is a safety issue. "If the dancers make a mistake, someone could get hurt," said Chief Joseph Fox, head of the NYPD's Transit Bureau.
Police have responded by studying passenger complaints to determine when and where to put plainclothes officers on trains to nab acrobats.
The arrests are usually uneventful but can turn nasty. An acrobat who was being arrested spit on one officer and tried to bite another. "No matter how you look at it, it's dangerous," Chief Fox said. "It's dangerous for us, too."