Metro needs more officers to deal with crimes on trains, officials say
By Dana Hedgpeth,
Crime is being driven from the District’s streets into the region’s rail system, and Metro needs more officers to deal with the problem, D.C. and Transit Police testified Friday during a congressional hearing on Metro security and safety.
“We’ve been really successful driving crime down in the city, but our success is creating problems for Metro,” D.C Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said. “They’re going to the easiest place to carry on with crimes and get away.”
Her statement came during the hearing before the House subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census and the National Archives. Lanier testified along with Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, Transit Police ChiefMichael Taborn and Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin.
In the hearing, congressional leaders questioned the four officials on topics including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s efforts to combat terrorist threats, improve its safety operations after the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people, and deal with assaults on Metro’s bus drivers.
The hearing, titled “WMATA: Is there a Security Gap?,” comes after recent reports of attacks on three bus drivers and a bomb scare last week at the Rockville Station on the Red Line.
Sarles told lawmakers that the transit agency has received commitments of $108 million in grants in the past four years to help improve its security. Of that, only $24 million has been used because of cumbersome rules from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to spend the money, Metro officials said.
Sarles said Metro collaborates with more than 40 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Metro’s Transit Police division has 20 sworn police officers who serve on Metro’s anti-terrorism team and work closely with federal air marshals and the Transportation Security Administration to “develop new strategies and techniques for combating acts of terror,” Sarles said.
The Metro system has 7,078 closed-circuit cameras, Sarles said. Of those, 81 percent are working, and Transit Police have “begun the process of identifying the locations of non-operational cameras.”
Homeland security grants are also being used to buy new cameras for the entrances of all of Metro’s 86 stations. Metro’s new rail cars — the 7000 series, which is in the design phase — will come equipped with built-in cameras, Sarles said.
Metro officials said Transit Police responded to 339 calls for suspicious packages and persons or bomb threats in the first six months of this year, compared with 451 calls received in all of 2010.
Taborn said he thinks the numbers have risen because of a campaign to encourage riders to be more aware of their surroundings and to report suspicious activities.
“Sharing information is crucial,” Taborn said. “It’s taxing because we have to respond and investigate, and you don’t know if what they’re saying is true, but it is important.”
Sarles emphasized that getting more money from the federal government is crucial to the upkeep of Metro’s security and safety measures. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she worries that getting $150 million more from the federal government for Metro is going to become a “difficult fight.” The federal government has agreed to provide Metro $150 million a year for 10 years to make capital improvements. In exchange, the government gets to appoint two members and two alternates to Metro’s board of directors. The District, Maryland and Virginia also have to provide a total of $150 million a year in matching funds.
If Metro doesn’t receive more federal money in the coming year, Sarles said, the system could “slide backwards” in its efforts to make improvements; riders would have to endure longer wait times as tracks will not be replaced and trains will have to run more slowly.
After the hearing, Lanier elaborated on the migration of criminal activity to Metro’s underground system.
Last year, she assigned a 10-person detail to Metro’s Chinatown stop because of a spate of stabbings and fights, but “now the problem is down in the train at Gallery Place,” she said.
“We push them off the aboveground, public space and they go down into the train,” she said, adding that she thinks Taborn “needs more cops.”
Metro reported this year that crime in the transit system had hit a five-year high in 2010. But Taborn said Friday that crime is down 10 percent on Metro’s bus and rail lines for the first quarter of the year, compared with 2010.
The problem, police officials said, is that Metro gives criminals a means of escape.
“If you have a raucous crowd aboveground, we’re a mode of transportation that can take people from Gallery Place to Largo, Pentagon City and Silver Spring,” Taborn said.
Sarles said Metro’s fiscal 2012 budget calls for the system to hire 30 police officers for its “special police division,” which has 153 officers who monitor rail and bus yards and other Metro facilities. Hiring additional officers in that unit will “free up” 15 to 30 officers to patrol Metro’s bus and rail systems, Sarles said.