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Burst of violence shakes Metro, riders as transit seeks recovery

Two shooting incidents in 15 hours left one person dead and four injured while sending chills across the system and region

First responders at the scene of a shooting at the Benning Road Metro station in Washington on Dec. 8. (Rodney Sutton)

Metro shooting incidents in back-to-back rush hours left the transit agency and Washington region on high alert Thursday after a violent 15 hours left one dead and four injured.

Gunfire at Metro Center and across town at the Benning Road station is the latest in a string of high-profile incidents in recent months to leave commuters and transit officials on edge. Metro’s police department began to increase its presence within the 97-station system this year amid passenger concerns, although the heightened security did little to quell this week’s burst of violence.

The attacks within the nation’s third-largest transit system, coming after incidents on subways and train platforms elsewhere, have sparked fear among some riders at a time when transit agencies are making appeals for passengers to return. As pandemic-era bailout money begins to run out and a year-long train shortage fades, Metro is increasingly eyeing more fare revenue as a way to restore normalcy.

That normalcy was shattered Wednesday evening at the downtown Metro Center station — a busy transfer station that’s home to four of Metro’s six lines — where an off-duty FBI agent fatally shot a man around 6:30 p.m. during an altercation on a Red Line train platform. The shooting sent commuters running into the streets as a loaded train bypassed the station to avoid danger.

Off-duty FBI agent fatally shoots person at Metro Center, police say

Hours later, around 9 a.m. Thursday, three people were shot at the Benning Road station in Northeast Washington. Metro Transit Police said the incident followed a “physical altercation” and left a 15-year-old male — who appeared to be the intended target — in critical condition with a gunshot wound to his thigh. Two bystanders, a 34-year-old woman and another 15-year-old male, suffered injuries not considered life-threatening, police said.

Joseph Buls said he arrived at the Benning Road station after a Metrobus trip when he saw police vehicles and learned what had happened.

“It’s a dangerous situation,” said Buls, 62. “People be at the wrong place at the wrong time, minding their business, and you get caught up in this.”

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke, who has made public safety a priority since taking the agency’s top job about four months ago, has said feedback from riders indicates crime is among their top concerns. The shooting occurred as Clarke and Metro board members were gathered Thursday morning for a regular meeting.

Clarke said police have significantly beefed up their presence throughout the system since the summer, adding that violence on Metro represents a slice of gun violence nationwide. Deploying “500 cops” and turning the transit system into a “police state” isn’t what riders want, either, he said.

“These are random acts of violence that are happening across our region — that are happening across America,” Clarke said. “And Metro is safe. Does it mean we can be safer? Of course.”

Metro officials said Thursday that since this past summer, transit police have dispatched 25 percent more officers to patrol the system in the mornings and 15 percent more during evenings. Transit police are riding 130 rail cars and 60 buses each day, officials said.

After lax enforcement, Metro to issue fare evasion citations next month

Metro also began dispatching teams of officers to stations in October as part of an effort to restart fare evasion enforcement.

The nation’s three largest transit systems — in New York, Chicago and Washington — generally have reported recent declines in crime, although bouts of violence continue to put passengers on edge. In Chicago, the City Council has urged better collaboration between the Chicago Transit Authority and police. In New York, a string of violent crime on the nation’s largest transit system prompted Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Mayor Eric Adams (D) in October to boost police presence by adding 1,200 overtime officer shifts daily on the subway.

Janno Lieber, chief executive of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, said last week on the city’s NY1’s news channel that crime is trending downward.

“There’s less crime in the subway system than there was before covid,” he said. “Now, ridership is down, too, so way, way, way too early to declare victory. But there is a positive trend, and we’re going to keep pushing.”

In Washington on Thursday afternoon, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said D.C. police are “working very hard to determine exactly what happened” at Metro Center, adding that she was still learning the details of the Benning Road incident. She said D.C. police plan to add more patrols citywide this holiday season.

“I support a full range of public safety efforts, including more police presence,” she said.

Even as buses and trains increasingly carry officers, high-profile crime incidents have persisted.

In October, transit police arrested two people on suspicion of simple assault, saying they were responsible for shoving a bus rider out the rear door on Metro’s W4 route, which stretches from the Deanwood station to the Anacostia station in the District. The incident was widely circulated on social media.

On Nov. 17, a man and a female teenager survived a shooting on a Metrobus near a charter school in Southeast Washington. Less than 10 days later, on Nov. 26, a Metrobus on the M6 route in Southeast was struck in the front and rear by gunfire from another vehicle. Five people were onboard the bus, and no one was hurt. Police said the incident appeared to be linked to road rage.

While specific crimes grab attention, Metro data paints a mixed picture about the number of incidents recently occurring within the system.

There were 16 aggravated assaults on Metro property, trains or buses last month, down from 24 in November 2021, transit police records show — even as ridership numbers grew. But such assaults also are up nearly 10 percent this year compared with the first 11 months of last year. Robberies are up 11 percent year-over-year. The rate of serious crime has also increased far more on Metro’s bus system than at rail stations and other facilities, police data shows.

Assaults at stations are still a concern. Transit officials on Thursday reported that three employees and six customers were assaulted in the bus system between July and October. In the rail system, four employees and 10 customers were assaulted during the same period.

Columbia Heights resident Jaxson Whittle, 25, was about to leave work Wednesday evening when he saw police cars approaching Metro Center and a commotion erupting across the street from his office. He said he has been more aware of his surroundings while riding Metro after shootings near the Columbia Heights station last winter.

“It’s definitely scary to think about how something like that could happen at any time,” Whittle said.

He said he feels safer when seeing police on trains and at station platforms. Despite this week’s violence, Whittle said he will continue using Metro because its convenience and affordability.

Patricia Guadalupe, who lives in the Takoma neighborhood, said she would like a greater police presence on public transit. She said she often sees youth “get a little out of hand and I think, hopefully, it will not escalate into something bad because there’s no law enforcement.”

Crime rates on public transit rose across the country during the pandemic as many systems struggled with pandemic-related ridership declines. Stations and trains with fewer people — particularly earlier in the pandemic — created spaces where criminals felt emboldened, transit researchers say. In turn, crime increases dissuade new customers from using transit.

Crime is rising on subways across the country, experts say

Ridership on Metrorail is about half of pre-pandemic levels, even as bus ridership is approaching numbers recorded in 2019. As pandemic-related bailout money begins to run dry, the drop in ridership is expected to fuel a Metro budget deficit that’s projected to exceed $500 million in 2024, unless ridership dramatically improves or the agency cuts service.

D.C. police on Thursday identified the man fatally shot by an off-duty FBI agent a day earlier as Troy Bullock, of Southeast Washington. D.C. police said that Bullock pushed the agent over a railing and that both men ended up about eight feet below the Red Line platform before the agent fired his gun. The FBI said it also will investigate the shooting.

Two of the victims in Thursday’s shooting at the Benning Road station did not appear to be targeted in the shooting, according to police, who said they were sitting on a bench when stray bullets struck their ankle and foot. The two are expected to recover, police said.

Metro Transit police said no arrest had been made as of Thursday afternoon. Authorities said they are looking for two suspects, probably juveniles, who appeared to be involved in a fight with the critically injured 15-year-old before the shooting. D.C. Police Sixth District Commander Darnel Robinson said one of the two fired multiple shots.

The shootings came as the debut of new Silver Line service, an increase in train availability and shorter wait times are raising optimism among Metro leaders about better days ahead in a system struggling through a rise in telework and a rail car suspension. The outbreak of violence threatens to hurt recent progress while fueling a perception among some that the system is unsafe.

Clarke said transit police would respond Thursday night by deploying officers across the Metro system in large numbers to increase security and assure riders that Metro is safe.

“We have a gun violence issue in America,” he said. “It bleeds into Metro … we’re not immune to that.”