It’s 10:20 a.m. Thursday when Michael Minchak receives word of a person possibly on the trackbed at the Rockville Metro station. Immediately Minchak, a digital video evidence coordinator with Metro Transit Police, pulls up the station’s surveillance footage on dual computer monitors. He beams the footage onto the front wall using a projector, carefully scanning the tracks.
Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he activates his radio.
“Video 2, we’re not showing anything,” he says.
It is the kind of alert that crops up dozens of times every day at Metro’s new Security Operations Control Center in Hyattsville, Md. Inside the new, $3.6 million facility, surveillance footage from the system’s busiest platforms is displayed on massive projector screens on the front wall. Flat-screen televisions cycle through a docket of people for whom Metro Transit Police are on the lookout. In a police bubble overlooking the floor, dispatchers and call takers log emergency complaints and text tips and feed them to officers in the system.
Metro says it is a first-of-its-kind security approach on a transit system, meant to quickly identify and stop moving targets, such as those in a spate of recent attacks on the system.
Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik Jr. said the SOCC has proven extremely useful in solving crime across the system since opening in November — at a time when the system’s security has been under scrutiny because of a litany of brazen attacks committed by groups of teenagers.
Last week, for example, six Wilson High School students were arrested in connection with a morning rush-hour fight at Gallery Place, in which a teenager allegedly punched a 35-year-old man getting off a train. Surveillance footage shows the man being slammed to the ground before the teens rush onto the train.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Thursday the incidents — including attacks on the Green and Red Lines that left victims severely injured — appear to be random in nature. And, despite the fact that the assaults have often been committed by juveniles, Wiedefeld said the transit agency has no plans to reevaluate a “free rides” program that allows D.C. Public Schools students to take the system to school.
Many riders have pointed to the attacks as signs that transit officers should be more visible and widely used in the system. Pavlik declined to detail his department’s enforcement tactics but said its 491 officers are deployed strategically around the system — not evenly distributed.
He said the new surveillance center allows Metro Transit Police to monitor “hot spots” such as L’Enfant Plaza, Gallery Place and other transfer stations for crowds and potential criminal activity so officers can be dispatched appropriately.
Wiedefeld also said attacks of the nature seen recently are not unique to Metro.
“It’s a societal issue that occasionally pops up,” Wiedefeld said. “I’ve also been in malls where things have occurred. And again, it happens very quickly. I’ve been in a number of food courts in my time. You know, things break out. I’ve seen it. That does not mean that malls are unsafe.”
Wiedefeld says the new control center allows transit police to quickly act when incidents of that nature — and those on a smaller scale, such as a robbery — occur. The Digital Video Evidence Unit processed more than 6,200 requests for footage last year, drawing from thousands of cameras placed inside and outside Metro’s 91 stations, the agency said.
“We can go back in time and find out who did what,” Wiedefeld said. “This system is a great tool to do that. And to know without this, it’s somebody’s memory of what they saw and that’s about it. This is proof.”
The control center’s capabilities were offered before, but not all in the same room. Whereas previously Metro’s call takers, dispatchers, detectives and video technicians were housed separately, they are now able to seamlessly communicate within the same quarters, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
Pavlik says the configuration has proven effective. He said the SOCC was instrumental in the case involving the Gallery Place platform fight.
“When that incident went out, this team right here identified the camera that provided the best angle,” he said. “We communicated with the Rail Operations Control Center. We knew what train they were on. We had officers on there to stop that train, give a physical description (so) we can identify them.”
In that incident, Pavlik said, two uniformed police officers were standing on the Gallery Place platform when the skirmish broke out, but he does not think those involved saw them among the crowds.
“What’s troubling about those is they’re just brazen, they’re very unprovoked,” he said. “It’s three to five individuals. There’s no method or madness to them, you know. Most of them aren’t even robberies.”
Despite the prevalence of surveillance in the new control center, Pavlik said video technicians did not see last week’s fight unfold in real time. The arrests were made, however, with the aid of surveillance footage reviewed in the control center.
Pavlik said a similar chain of events followed a rush-hour Red Line attack on Dec. 21 and a Nov. 22 attack on the Green Line. In the Red Line incident, a 41-year-old man was attacked by at least two youths — one of whom punched him in the jaw, leaving him unconscious. The victim was left with a broken jaw and collarbone.
Metro Transit Police arrested a 17-year-old in the incident in January.