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Serious crime on Metro hits 5-year high

Schell, who works in Virginia in communications, witnessed an attempted iPad snatching two weeks ago as her train pulled into Foggy Bottom Station. "The doors opened, I heard a woman scream, and I saw a guy run by with an iPad still glowing," she said. This time, riders chased and probably caught the robber, she said. "He would have had to pull some pretty fancy maneuvers to get out. There were dozens of people yelling and pointing."

Transit officials said that other systems are experiencing increases in serious crimes - including homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft. Such crimes increased nearly 20 percent on the Boston transit system.

New York City's subway system has seen a spike in assaults and in robberies of electronic devices. But even with the increase, New York's crime numbers are roughly comparable to Metro's, even though New York has many more daily riders, said New York City Police Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne. On the San Francisco subway system, aggravated assaults rose 30 percent from 2009 to last year, said Capt. Kenton Rainey, chief of the city's transit police force.

Thefts of electronic devices are common, transit officials said.

"It's a trend we are seeing in other transit agencies across the United States, and it's geared toward electronic devices," said Metro's Pavlik. "It's really a crime of opportunity. . . . As the latest and greatest gadgets come out, the criminals want them."

Metro and other transit agencies say that because small police forces are covering sprawling rail and bus networks, they are mainly reacting to the crimes. Metro has 420 sworn officers covering a 1,500-square-mile transit zone in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

Transit police say that electronic-device robberies have increased in part because of the proliferation of smartphones and the wireless networks that allow them to be used underground.

Pavlik said the rise in assaults is linked to transit employees who get into altercations with customers who try to evade paying fares. "We have seen the increase mainly against our own operators," Pavlik said. "When you have a younger bus operator, they might get into a verbal argument with someone who doesn't pay the fare. Then it escalates into something bigger."

Transit agencies are focusing on education campaigns to curb crime, particularly robberies.

In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system is distributing leaflets with tips on preventing thefts of electronic devices, with messages such as: "Your phone is smart - are you?"

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