As Metro and lawmakers look for ways to prevent assaults on transit operators and customers — particularly from repeat offenders — they are dealing with issues other transit agencies have struggled with: chiefly, how to balance public safety with the needs of transit-dependent communities.
Prompted by a recent spate of assaults on bus drivers — including an incident in which a woman allegedly threw a cup of urine onto a driver and another in which a driver was spat on — officials are pushing for tougher criminal penalties and the authority to ban offenders from the system.
Under the regional agreement that governs Metro fares and policies, transit police have the authority to keep people out of the system "on an immediate, short-term basis," agency spokesman Richard L. Jordan said. But neither Metro nor the police department have a formal process to completely bar people from the system. Instead, they must seek a stay-away order from a judge.
Metro officials have complained that prosecutors usually opt to request limited, short-term bans that prevent a person from riding a particular bus line or entering a single station — rather than bar them from the entire system.
"When we have a case where we can't ban someone from the system who has a tremendous track record of doing this on our system, what message does that send?" Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said.
Wiedefeld said he is researching policies that exist at other transit authorities, and whether instituting tougher policies here would require legislation.
One of the agencies on his radar: the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), which has issued more than 12,000 temporary or permanent bans since September 2013. That is when the agency's board of directors passed a new, stricter code of conduct that outlines a process that for the first time allows police to issue suspension citations.
MARTA General Manager Keith T. Parker said it is a delicate balance between maintaining peace and order on the system and overpolicing.
"If there is a sense of lawlessness on the system for the small things, those things could quickly get out of hand," Parker said. "Our goal is not to create a wild-wild-west environment, as MARTA police out there doing enforcement. . . . We want to be seen as the folks who will make sure everyone has a comfortable ride."
Parker said police prefer to take a more low-key approach to potential conflicts — "we treat them with dignity to de-escalate situations" — but the ability to ban people from the system, either in the short- or long-term, is an effective deterrent.
"If you're a teenager and you're reliant on MARTA to get to your part-time job or to school, and your friend has been banned from the system for a few weeks or a couple of months, you might think twice," he said. "The word gets around and they know that we're serious about it."
At San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), transit police have the ability to issue "prohibition orders" at the scene of an incident or altercation, potentially banning someone from BART buses or trains in the district where the incident occurred for 30, 90, or 180 days, agency spokeswoman Alicia Trost said.
The prohibition orders were made possible by a 2013 law passed by the California legislature.
The orders are issued when a person is cited or arrested for battery, threats of battery, drug sales or sexual offenses — or if a person is convicted of narcotic activity or loitering for prostitution on BART property. In addition, a prosecutor can request that a judge issue a longer-term stay-away order to keep a person out of a specific station or away from a specific transit worker.
BART's board of directors also passed a resolution in 2012 formally requesting that district attorneys in the Bay Area seek maximum penalties when prosecuting attacks on transit workers. California's penal code has a specific law for battery on a transit operator, which carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
"We're going to look at it internally first," Wiedefeld said. "What can we do, what can the board do, what do we need? . . . My understanding is that we've tried this in the past and we've failed, so I'm going to take a much harder look at this than maybe we've done in the past."
Wiedefeld acknowledged that a long-term solution may also require working with the U.S. attorney's office in the District. Bill Miller, spokesman for the office, said their decision to restrict the stay-away order in the case of Opal Brown, the woman who allegedly threw urine on a bus driver, for example, was "based on the facts of this particular case."
"We seek stay-away orders on a case-by-case basis, depending on the particular circumstances," Miller said in a statement. "As in all of our cases, if defendants violate stay-away orders or commit other crimes while on release, we can take further action."
Wiedefeld said he wants to see such crimes taken more seriously and made felonies — a legal requirement that already exists to protect public servants such as police officers and postal workers. State lawmakers in New York and Pennsylvania have voted to include public transit employees in a "protected class" of public servants in assault cases.
"I think that our operators — they're not being addressed the same way we deal with other professional people that . . . have lives at stake," Wiedefeld said. "If you were to do something like that to an attendant on an airplane, there are strict laws that would kick in immediately. And our people are moving 40 or 50 people at a time."
Metro board Chairman Jack Evans, who also is a Democratic D.C. Council member who represents Ward 2, supports a heightened penalty for those who attack transit workers, saying it's "something we need to look at."
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the panel's Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, said he is willing to consider such legislation.
"I'm open to the idea, but we need to be thoughtful and to think it through," Allen said. "Would that be a deterrent to a situation like the one with Opal Brown? Is she thinking, 'Am I gonna get a misdemeanor or a felony if I go through with this?' We need to ask whether this does have a deterrent effect."
One concern, he said, is the potential impact on low-level offenders and their ability to provide for their families as they await a trial, or after serving a sentence.
"We depend on transit, whether you're getting your kids to school or getting to a job," Allen said. "It's problematic to say you're going to ban someone from a public transit system when we know how important transportation is to jobs, child care, school."
Allen said there also is room in existing law to push prosecutors to seek more aggressive charges. And he wonders whether infrastructure improvements or public awareness campaigns could be effective in cutting down the number of assaults that occur on the system.
"We have to think about this holistically, and not just look at this as a potential legal change," Allen said.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) took a similarly cautious stance. He said in a statement that his office is not opposed to seeking systemwide stay-away orders "where warranted by the need to ensure the safety of victims and other important factors, such as the egregiousness of the offense and the defendant's criminal history."
As for increasing the penalty for attacks on transit workers, he said he needs more information.
"We are open to considering all means of protecting Metro personnel and riders, including enhanced penalties, if the data demonstrates that such an approach reduces the incidence of violence in public transportation," Racine said.
Coming up with a systemwide ban for a Metro rider would be particularly difficult to enact or enforce because the system spans numerous jurisdictions, said Casey M. Lingan, chief deputy commonwealth attorney for Fairfax County. A judge could order a defendant to stay away from Metro stations and buses in a particular Virginia county but wouldn't necessarily have the authority to extend the order to the District or Maryland.
"It's a tricky situation because you've got multiple jurisdictions, and you're wearing multiple hats depending on where a crime took place," Lingan said.
In Boston, police officers are allowed to bar a person from a particular bus or line for a maximum of 24 hours, said Richard Sullivan, superintendent of transit police at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. A stay-away order for anything longer than that must come from a judge as part of the arraignment process or sentencing.
But Sullivan said he could not recall an instance in which a judge had barred a person from using any of the system's dozens of train stations or hundreds of bus routes.
And he thinks — with a few exceptions for extremely violent crimes — that is probably a good call. For some offenders who are rehabilitated, a complete ban would block their ability to reach a job, or connect with family and friends. A person might be more likely to reoffend if faced with the limited number of employment options that would result from not being able to use public transit.
Sullivan warned that such policies also could have a disparate effect on communities of color — communities that are disproportionately reliant on public transit.
"To say you can't ride the T anymore, ever — that has a significant impact on someone's life. I wouldn't support all-out bans," Sullivan said. "We have to have a balance."