NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Violence on the subway is becoming prevalent across New York City.
MTA conductor Gerard Sykes' face is bandaged. He's in the ICU at Jamaica Hospital.
Transit leaders say the off-duty worker could have been blinded after being slashed multiple times early Thursday morning while riding the J train at the Cypress Hills station.
Sykes' aunt had a direct message for the mayor.
"Mr. Mayor, I am saying to you, it is not safe for transit workers or the public to ride train, buses and everything ... I'm angry as hell," Cassandra Sykes said. "Something needs to be done. We cannot keep living like this day after day, worrying about our people that's getting up, coming to work for you. Do something! Please!"
MTA and union leaders say this incident is part of a growing problem involving violent attacks in the transit system.
De Blasio points to statistics showing an overall decrease in transit crime.
"If you said to one of my kids, 'Oh you shouldn't go in the subway, it's not safe,' they would laugh you out of the room," de Blasio said in response. "They would tell you, you clearly couldn't be a real New Yorker."
Transit and union leaders described the mayor's response as tone-deaf.
"Putting on rose-colored glasses, pretending that there's no problem, is not a way to lead the city, and it's not a way to lead the city into the recovery that we need," said Interim NYC Transit President Sarah Feinberg.
While crime is down citywide compared to this time last year, assaults in transit is up 20%.
Earlier this year, a surge of 600 officers were assigned to the subways. The MTA says it needs 1,500 more, at least until the crowds return.
Some experts believe this recent rise in subway violence is the result of a perfect storm -- years of inadequate social services mixed with the pandemic's economic impact and commuters still largely working from home.
Watch Aundrea Cline-Thomas' report --
The common thread with most of the violence is emotionally disturbed people who are often homeless.
"The de Blasio administration for years has been failing to deal properly with mental health issues, and we're just seeing the results compound themselves at a time of higher stress," CBS2 urban affairs expert Mark Peters told CBS2's Ali Bauman.
"They need police, they need medical people, they need to get help," said Tony Utano, from the Transport Workers Union. "There's no sense having police take them and put them in the street because they're gonna end up back down there."
"Individuals who maybe might be prone to commit acts of violence are able to perform much better in society when they have a stable and supportive and secure environment, and the pandemic has really upended that," said Anna Harvey, director of New York University's Public Safety Lab.
She believes crime will subside after the city fully reopens, but in the meantime, she agrees more cops in transit focused on violence would help.
"Because every minute that you spend writing out a citation or making an arrest for a non-violent misdemeanor offense is a minute that you're not able to act as a deterrent presence," she said.
As the city prepares to reopen, the recovery hinges on riders feeling safe.
The MTA has doubled the number of security personnel and ordered thousands of cameras to better monitor subway stations.
CBS2's Aundrea Cline-Thomas contributed to this report.
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