Among the many things that can (and frequently do) go wrong in the Washington area’s much-maligned transit system, crime typically isn’t a consuming worry for most riders. Track malfunctions, train breakdowns — the sort of daily Metro aggravations that prolong people’s commutes — normally top the list of concerns.
Then a frightful, highly publicized incident occurs, such as the vicious Dec. 21 attack on a man headed home from work on a Red Line train. Set upon by at least two youths in a possible robbery attempt, the 41-year-old victim suffered a concussion and a broken jaw and collarbone, his wife said.
And other folks realize: It could happen to them.
“It’s sad to say, but I feel like I’m risking my life every day going back and forth to work,” said Yolanda Proctor, 46, an office administrator as she waited for a train Thursday at the L’Enfant Plaza station. Although she also worries about the potential for terrorism in the subway, Proctor, who lives in Brandywine, Md., said she has to keep riding. “This is my only means of transportation.”
Metro trains and buses carry hundreds of thousands of passengers each weekday, and it’s difficult to measure the ridership’s overall concern about crime. On Thursday, however, a day after police announced an effort to combat robberies on D.C. streets and in the transit system, it wasn’t hard to find Metro commuters who feel uneasy.
“This is only my second time catching the train this year, and I’m kind of scared to get on,” said Tawanna Judd, 58, a deli employee from Landover, Md.
Waiting on a L’Enfant Plaza platform, Judd said her granddaughter had shown her a YouTube video of a Metro rider being assaulted. “This man just sitting on the train, and 14- and 15-year-old boys, about six of them, started fighting him and beating him up.
“I was shocked,” Judd said. “I am like, ‘Give me some pepper spray!’ ”
In the Dec. 21 Red Line attack, which occurred while the train was between the Union Station and NoMa-Gallaudet U stops, two teenagers from a rowdy group of youths apparently wanted to steal the victim’s bag, according to a witness. One punched the man repeatedly before walking away, then the other youth continued the beating.
The victim, an information technology specialist from Montgomery County, was “terribly concussed,” said his wife, Lori Kaplan, who spoke on the condition that her husband’s name not be published. She described him as an “extremely private” person.
“My husband’s jaw is healing well post-surgery,” she wrote in an email Friday. “He will be eating liquid and pureed foods for another 5 weeks. His concussion symptoms are abating but have not resolved. He is wearing a sling for a broken collarbone.”
At a news conference Wednesday at which authorities announced the creation of an anti-robbery task force composed of District and transit police officers, Metro Police Chief Ronald A. Pavlik Jr. acknowledged the uptick in robberies and thefts in the transit system.
“Things that occur on Metro . . . they start on the street and come down into the system,” Pavlik said. “It’s something we’re very serious about.”
Jennifer Howard, 52, a Capitol Hill resident, thinks about it, too.
“I tend not to take Metro at a lot of off-hours,” Howard, who works in public relations, said. “Generally, I feel pretty secure,” she said as she waited in the Metro Center station Thursday. But she added: “I realize there was that assault on the Red Line, which is obviously very concerning. You know, it’s a city. I just try to be mindful.”
Transit agency records show that in 2014, crime on the subway and bus systems and in Metro parking lots and garages reached its lowest point since 2010. This includes the most serious types of offenses, called “Part 1 crimes,” meaning aggravated assaults, arsons, vehicle thefts and attempted thefts, larcenies, rapes and robberies.
In 2014, there were 1,560 Part 1 crimes, down from 2,258 in 2010. No homicides occurred on Metro property from 2010 to 2014, the agency said. In that span, annual robberies and larcenies decreased from 1,921 to 1,337. Aggravated assaults, most of them on the subway, dropped from 132 to 108, the records show.
But 2015 was different.
In July, there were two slayings in or near a Metrorail station. On July 4, an 18-year-old who authorities said may have been high on synthetic drugs tried to grab a cellphone from a recent American University graduate. Jasper Spires punched 24-year-old Kevin Joseph Sutherland and then stabbed him until he was dead. Two weeks later, two men shot and killed Eric Alexander Melgar, 20, at a Wheaton Metro parking garage.
By the end of November, according to a Metro report, Part 1 crimes totaled 1,503 for 2015, with December’s numbers yet to be tallied. The offenses included 111 robberies and larcenies in November, compared with 93 in November 2014. The 2015 year-to-date total for robberies and larcenies was 1,334 as of Nov. 30, the report says. At the end of November 2014, there had been 1,244 such crimes during the year.
“We’re very focused on crimes on Metro and we are not going to tolerate lawlessness on our public transit system,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Wednesday as officials announced the anti-robbery task force, which has been in place since Dec. 11.
The group includes a D.C. police officer who is embedded with transit police and a prosecutor who is assigned to handle only robbery cases, authorities said.
Bowser said the task force’s job is to “quickly identify patterns. It will quickly identify and arrest individuals who terrorize neighborhoods and get them off the streets.” She said the embedded D.C. officer will help transit police “identify any crimes where suspects are moving between Metro” and District streets.
At the news conference, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier mentioned a recent street robbery involving a man who also turned out to be a suspect in “seven or eight robberies” in Metro stations.
Michael Tyger, 19, of Northeast Washington, who was charged with robbery, is accused of stealing a subway rider’s iPhone last month. He is under investigation in seven similar cases, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. The robbery was typical of many that occur in the transit system.
A woman told Metro police that she was sitting in the Capitol South station on the night of Dec. 8 when a young man “approached her from behind, reached over the bench, and snatched her white-and-gold iPhone 6 from her hands,” according to a police affidavit filed in D.C. Superior Court. The robber then “fled up the escalator, jumped over a faregate, and continued out of the station,” the affidavit says.
The crime was recorded by security cameras. The suspect in the video appeared to be the same person who committed a similar robbery a half-hour earlier in the Smithsonian station, also caught on camera, according to the affidavit. Metro police charged Tyger in the Capitol South robbery after D.C. police detained him Dec. 23 in connection with a robbery in the 300 block of H Street SE, the affidavit says.
Bowser said the anti-robbery task force sends “a message that, as Washingtonians, we want the safest transit system in the world.” For now, though, danger still lurks.
Ronald Ford, 58, a D.C. resident, was waiting for a train at Metro Center on Thursday.
“I’m a confident person,” said Ford, who is a special police officer, meaning he is employed in the security field and is authorized to carry a gun at his workplace. “Overall, I feel safe,” he said. But, “I would like to see more of a police presence” in the transit system.
So would Calvin Lawrence.
Lawrence, 48, who lives in Gaithersburg, told The Washington Post that his longtime partner, Joseph Cowart, 43, was assaulted Nov. 22 by as many as a dozen teenagers and subjected to anti-gay slurs on the Green Line as the train’s operator ignored calls for help. The attack, in which Cowart was punched and kicked, started after Cowart tried to intervene in the attempted robbery of a 14-year-old boy, the transit agency said.
One suspect has been identified but not yet arrested, police said.
The Red Line assault and the attack on Cowart, as well as other recent incidents, prompted the D.C. Guardian Angels to announce on Twitter that they plan to patrol on the Red Line this weekend “due to the rise of violent crime.”
Unarmed volunteers with the nonprofit group, which has chapters around the world, began patrolling the crime-ridden New York subway in the 1970s.
“I don’t think we’ll have much comment on the Guardian Angels,” said Stessel, the Metro spokesman. “They’re riders just like everyone else.” He added: “They are welcome on Metro. But they are not law enforcement, and anyone needing assistance should contact transit police.”
Meanwhile, on Monday night, passengers were evacuated from a train at the Addison Road station, on the Blue and Silver lines, after a fire was deliberately set in one of the cars, apparently by teenagers, authorities said. The next night, on a Yellow Line train between the U Street-Cardozo and Georgia Avenue-Petworth stations, a rider suffered a cut on his ear in an attempted robbery, Metro said.
And shortly after 5 p.m. on New Year’s Day, a 15-year-old boy and two of his friends suffered facial lacerations when they were accosted by about eight teenagers on a Yellow Line train between the L’Enfant Plaza and Mount Vernon Square stations, according to Stessel, who said the assailants stole a hat and a dollar bill. On Friday, Metro released surveillance images of four suspects in the incident.
“You’re sitting there, and you just get sucker punched,” the mother of the 15-year-old boy said on Fox 5 TV last week. “They could tell these kids were visibly older, bigger. All they could do was basically sit there. They were actually all hit in the face.”
As for Lori Kaplan, whose husband is recuperating at home after the assault last month, she said Friday: “I took the Metro yesterday for the first time since the attack. I took it again this morning. . . . I plan to continue using Metro. . . . I believe in public transportation and the function it serves in major metropolitan areas.
“Are there bad actors in our communities? Yes,” she said. “Do we need to do something about it? Yes. Should we abandon Metro? No.”
But she added: “Will my husband want to take Metro again anytime soon? I don’t know.”
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.