By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; A01
Serious crime increased last year across the Metro transit system by 12 percent, fueled by surging numbers of aggravated assaults and robberies by thieves who snatch smartphones, MP3 players and other electronic devices from rail passengers and flee, Metro has reported.
The bus and rail system serving Maryland, Virginia and the District reported 2,279 serious crimes in 2010. That marks a five-year high from 2006, when 1,440 incidences were reported.
From 2009 to 2010, the number of rapes and sexual offenses grew from one to seven; four of the sexual offenses allegedly involved assaults on disabled customers by MetroAccess drivers.
The largest single increase was in aggravated assaults, from 94 to 136. Metro officials said a third of those altercations involved its own bus drivers, some of whom had confrontations with passengers who refused to pay fares.
The other big increase came in "snatch" robberies, from 425 to 508. The rise was fueled by a booming market in MP3 players and smartphones, creating opportunities for fleet-footed thieves who often grab the devices as train doors close. Overall, robberies, including electronics thefts, increased from 398 in 2006 ago to 1,007 last year.
The four Metro stations with the most incidents of crime were New Carrollton, Branch Avenue, Greenbelt and Prince George's Plaza, all in Prince George's County.
The electronics thefts, following a nationwide trend among big-city transit systems, became so prevalent that Metro Transit Police began to deploy "robbery suppression teams" in which plainclothes officers display fake iPods and other devices in an effort to entice would-be robbers, Transit Police Deputy Chief Ronald Pavlik said. The teams have made dozens of arrests in the past year.
"It's a trend we are seeing in other transit agencies across the United States, and it's geared toward electronic devices," Pavlik said.
A thief struck Jennifer Schell so fast that she was left in shock, her iPod buds still in her ears and a dangling wire left where the device should have been.
Schell was sitting in an aisle seat on a packed Red Line train as she headed home from work, reading a book that covered the purse containing her iPod. As the train pulled into the Fort Totten Station, a young man walked past. In an instant, he slipped his hand into her purse and snatched the $200 device.
"With a flick of his wrist, he snapped the iPod free from the buds . . . and walked off" with it, said Schell, 26, of the District. "I got off the train and yelled, but there was no capturing him," she said. "It was a surreal moment."
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?"