Robberies up on Metro system, iPhones popular among thieves

Metro train
(Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Metro said it is seeing an uptick in robberies for the first three months of this year, as snatchings of iPhones continues to be a problem on the system.

Robberies are up 36 percent — 121 incidents from January to March, from 89 incidents during the same time period last year. Metro officials said these robberies include crimes in which a suspect confronts a person and demands their property with “force or the threat of force.” Twenty-nine percent of the 121 robbery incidents involved iPhone thefts.

While the number of snatching and pickpocket incidents on Metro dropped to 144 incidents in the first quarter of this year, compared to 239 incidents a year ago — a five year high — 67 percent of snatchings this year were of Apple iPhones, according to Metro statistics.

Newly appointed Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik is expected to give an update on the transit agency’s most recent crime statistics to the board of directors at this Thursday’s monthly committee meetings.

Pavlik said Tuesday that suspects are using a variety of tactics in robbing riders.

Sometimes, a person pretends to have a weapon under their shirt and then robs a person. In other instances, groups of young adults ages 12 to 20 are robbing victims of “brand name jackets, high-end sneakers,” Pavlik said.

“There’s a wolf pack mentality where they’ll use force to remove a victim’s shoes or threaten him with violence to remove his jacket,” Pavlik said. “They want those more expensive items of iPhones or jackets.”

He said the robberies are not occurring on one particular line in the system, but typically happen at transfer stations such as L’Enfant Plaza or Gallery Place.

One problem, he said, is that riders sometimes don’t report the incident until they get to the end of the line. That, he said, can sometimes mean there’s a 20- to 25-minute delay from when the crime happened. He encouraged riders to try to report a crime  to transit officials as soon as it happens.

To combat robberies, Pavlik said he will redeploy his officers to focus on areas that he considers “hot spots” in their patrols. He also plans to have transit officers patrol fewer stations, and he is encouraging riders to register their electronic devices with tracking software in case they are stolen.

Metro said it made three recent arrests in cases in which iPhones were stolen from riders and they used tracking systems to find the devices.

In one case in February, a Green Line rider’s iPhone was stolen as the train approached Naylor Road station. With software, the iPhone was tracked to Good Hope Avenue near the rail station. A transit officer spotted a person who matched the description of the suspect just as an alarm the victim had set on the iPhone began to go off. That allowed the transit police officer to find the iPhone in the thief’s left pants pocket and make an arrest.

Although authorities have been promoting a process known as “bricking,” where a provider is able to disable the phone from future use, Pavlik said the process can be a double-edged sword because authorities need the device to stay working so they can track it, but they also want for thieves to not be able to use the phone.

Another problem, Pavlik said, is that even with bricking, there is still a market to sell electronic devices so they can be shipped overseas and reactivated.

Pavlik has started to issue electronic tablets to his officers so they can use them in the field to get faster updates on thefts and even stream video of robberies that have just occurred.

Dan Stessel, a Metro spokesman, said the uptick in electronic device snatchings often happens because “people have a tendency to become engrossed with what’s on their screen and they don’t realize that you’re about to be a victim.”

He said thieves often snatch iPhones from riders on the bus or near the doors of trains and then run off.

“We’re also seeing a trend where someone will be using their device on an escalator and a thief runs up from behind and snatches the phone and keeps running out of the station,” he said.

Crime on buses is also up.

There were 11 more incidents in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2012. Metro is in the process of putting more transit police officers on its buses and plans to have motorcycle patrol officers help more in monitoring crime on buses.

Overall, Metro said its crime rate is down, driven in large part by  a 41 percent reduction in crimes in parking lots.

Metro officials said they’ve given SmarTrip cards to city and county police officers in area jurisdictions so they can help patrol and monitor Metro’s parking lots — a move they say attributed to the drop in parking lot crimes.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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