What Metro can do to prevent brawls

Saturday, August 14, 2010

THE INCIDENT BEGAN when a group of teenagers hanging out around Gallery Place made their way onto the Metro to try to meet the 11 p.m. youth curfew. Initially, they did not appear to be disruptive, so the subway system's Transit Police took no action to prevent their boarding the train. But by the time the train arrived at the L'Enfant Plaza Station, a fight exploded onto the platform. Soon the brawl swelled to encompass 70 people. Four were injured and three arrested -- two charged with disorderly conduct and one with assault.

How the fight last weekend escalated so quickly from mere horseplay into a melee that involved dozens of people remains unclear. But what emerges from this incident is a reminder of the need to keep passengers safe on one of the nation's most traveled mass transit systems.

Overall, crime on the Metro has remained stable or fallen in the past few years, with the exception of rising snatch-and-grab thefts of mobile devices as more riders bring them on trains. Fights have broken out on the Metro before -- another one occurred in June near Union Station. But what was alarming about the Aug. 6 fight was its scope and how swiftly it expanded.

Many solutions have been proposed in light of the incident, including a stricter curfew. Given that the brawl broke out when large numbers of teenagers were trying to beat curfew, moving up the curfew is unlikely to fix the situation.

Gallery Place offers a attractive array of restaurants, activities and clubs that cater to the under-21 crowd, drawing many young people on weekends. Such a thriving scene naturally gives rise to crowds in Metro cars and on platforms. This concentration of youth can be volatile; it had already resulted in an increase in police patrols in the subway system and nearby. But this elevated presence could not stop last weekend's brawl. A more proactive approach may be necessary. Metro's desire to treat passengers with respect and give young noisemakers the benefit of the doubt is commendable -- but not at the expense of ensuring all riders a safe commute.

This weekend, Metro police plan to step up their patrols in areas where they know youth traffic will be high. Such a focused increase in police presence can prove helpful, as can increased patrols by the volunteer Guardian Angels.

Metro police have been instructed to disperse potentially rowdy groups and escort them toward their destinations, adding a step of follow-through presence that was absent last weekend. This will be a helpful start. Increased coordination between D.C. and Metro police will also be necessary, as communication about potential threats could help improve enforcement.

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