At a recent meeting about crime on the Metro transit system, a group of Washington-area young adults and Metro officials spoke frankly about their frustrations and fears.
There was Petrina Pettegrue, a Metro Transit Police officer:
“I saw a kid running who had snatched a phone, and I had to get off the train and make the arrest,” she recalled. “While taking his information, I noticed that he lived six doors down from me. I have a daughter in the same age range, and so I have to worry: Does he attend her school? I noticed that we’d locked him up three times already, so I’m wondering why the court system isn’t doing its job.”
There was Erica Briscoe who, as a teenager, had been homeless, joined a gang for protection, and became involved in gang fights and cellphone thefts in and around Metro stations.
“When I’d rob people or steal their phones, it was to get money to buy food to feed my younger siblings,” said Briscoe, now 24 and a youth counselor with the D.C.-based nonprofit organization Contemporary Family Services. “Not everyone who is out there snatching phones is doing it just to have a free phone.”
She told me later: “When kids are hungry, being abused, can’t go to school because it’s not safe, they don’t think about tomorrow. They do whatever it takes to survive that day.”
The meeting, held Saturday at Metro headquarters in the District, was organized in response to a disturbing spike in crime in and around Metro stations and at bus stops. Last month, 15-year-old John Rufus Evans III was stabbed to death at the Deanwood Metro station. Two weeks earlier, another 15-year-old boy, Davonte Washington, was shot to death at the same station.
There has also been an increase in assaults, including the recent rape, at knifepoint, of a woman on a Metro train near the Wheaton-Glenmont station.
Arrests have been made in each of those cases. But aside from wanting to make sure that perpetrators are convicted, riders want to know what is being done to curb the violence and what they can do to protect themselves.
“What we are hearing from some riders is that they are afraid to ride some of the trains,” said Barbara Hermanson, who chairs the Riders’ Advisory Council. “Everybody knows we are not talking about all youths being involved in crime, but it seems that young people are involved in the scarier things.”
Metro’s unreliable service was bad enough, but the specter of random violence was causing even more people to avoid the transit system, she said. Riders complain of not knowing if arguments among school kids is just rowdy talk or a prelude to a killing.
It did not go without notice that most of the violence was being perpetrated by black youths against other black youths.
“My 65-year-old mom loves young people, but when she’s on the bus and they are having loud, vulgar conversations, calling each other [racial and sexual slurs], that frightens her,” said Jawauna Greene, who is black and director of marketing for Metro. “Here’s a woman who raised two children, managed to send both of us to college. So when I find out that she has been pushed, assaulted, while riding a bus, that makes me angry.”
The participants acknowledged that the problems don’t start at the bus stop or the train station.
Ronald Moten, who is involved in gang-conflict resolution, noted that far too many D.C. youths who find themselves involved in crime are coming from troubled homes. Poverty is a constant presence, but stable two-parent households are not. “There is no strong male presence in the community, and both boys and girls are missing that,” Moten said.
Briscoe emphasized the importance of mentors to fill that void. But ultimately, she said, the individual must want to change.
“I had to realize that I am somebody,” said Briscoe, who ended up doing time in the D.C. jail for carjacking and armed robbery.
“Sometimes you just have to go through what you have to go through, and there is no guarantee that you will make it.”
She was being realistic. But such insight would hardly provide solace for fearful Metro riders.
“It breaks my heart to see some of the things that are going on, like five or six kids beating up on one child, kicking him in the head,” Pettegrue said. “I ride Metro, too, in my regular clothes, and I can only sit back and wonder how you all feel with no protection.
“I’ve got protection under my clothes,” she said, referring to her service weapon. “But nobody should be riding the Metro scared.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.