Metro anti-crime initiative could restrict student use of system

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 10:20 PM

Metro and D.C. officials plan to issue special identification passes to some students that could restrict their use of subsidized public transportation.

The transit authority is trying to reverse a rising incidence of crime on its sprawling rail and bus network, authorities said.

"Unfortunately, our young people are running in groups, and they are taking advantage of people," Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn said. He discussed the plan Thursday during a meeting of Metro's board of directors.

The transit authority plans to launch a pilot program with 1,500 D.C. public school students at the School Without Walls on April 16, issuing passes that would identify them by name and school, said John Lisle, a spokesman for the District Department of Transportation. The program could expand to cover all 16,000 D.C. public school students who receive a transit subsidy card, Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal said.

Current cards without ID information allow students to travel on Metro's trains and buses for about half the cost of a regular fare. The District pays the difference. The new passes, similar to the SmarTrip electronic Farecards, will contain a chip with ID information.

Lisle said a final decision has not been made about how the program would be phased in or what limitations on travel might be implemented. The program "will be capable of restricting travel past 8 p.m. and on weekends," he said.

Lisle added: "We have a rollout plan to bring more schools into the SmarTrip program, but until we see how things work at School Without Walls during the pilot, we will not announce firm dates when other schools will come on board."

Officials plan to review the program this summer.

Teens would still be free to travel by paying the required fare. However, the District has a curfew law in place for people younger than 17 that varies by time of the year and day of the week.

Serious crime on Metro hit a five-year high in 2010, according to data released this week. Aggravated assaults on Metro rose nearly 50 percent last year, while robberies went up 13 percent, fueled by a 20 percent rise in snatchings.

"A lot of the increase can be attributed to young people stealing the iPods," Taborn said.

More than a quarter of the 2,012 arrests made by Metro Transit Police in 2010 were of youths, Taborn said. Metro did not release information about where the arrested youths live.

"If Metro police stop someone, say, a youth acting out, they don't have to tell them their name or school," said Tommy Wells, a Metro board member from the District. "Right now, there is not much consequence" for bad behavior.

Youths who violate rules could also be banned from using the card for a time period, or their misconduct could be reported to their school, officials said.

"If Johnny Jones has issues on the transit system, he doesn't play basketball," Taborn said.

Taborn said that criminal activity often occurs after school is dismissed. Metro police conduct daily conference calls with school officials to help determine when and where conflicts among youths at schools could spill over into the Metro system. The Tenleytown and Van Ness stations are places where "we know we have problems," he said.

The vastness of Metro's service area strains the ability of the police force to provide coverage, Taborn said. The transit system includes 86 rail stations, dozens of parking garages and more than 300 bus routes.

Taborn said that since Metro Transit Police became responsible for 12,000 bus stops, crimes that take place within 150 feet of those locations - but are unrelated to Metro - are classified as Metro crimes. "That is called punting," he said.

Metro has about 450 police officer positions, but about 28 officers are in training and have not joined the force, Taborn said. Because there are three times more station managers than police in the Metro rail system at any given time, he said, Metro police last month started training station managers to be more active in reporting and preventing crimes, he said.

Deputy Chief Ronald Pavlick said he has begun briefing station managers, explaining the need for them to report incidents and provide descriptions of suspects. The failure of station managers to report incidents is "not a weak link, it's an ill-informed link," Pavlick said.

Despite the rise in Metro crime, Taborn said incidents remain far lower than overall crime in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

"Yes, there is an increase in crime in Metro, but in comparison, you are safer in our system than in walking on the streets," he said.

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