Crime was down overall across the Metro system in the first six months of 2017, but sexual harassment and assaults on bus operators rose sharply, according to a new report by Metro Transit Police.
Seven months after an annual crime review noted a dramatic rise in aggravated assaults, and an increase in violent offenses such as homicide and rape, transit police reported that such incidents were less prevalent on the system in the first half of this year. No killings or rapes were reported in the first six months of the year, according to the report presented at Thursday’s Metro board meeting. Robbery and aggravated assaults decreased 25 percent and serious crime was down 17 percent overall through June, compared to the same period last year.
The lower crime rates came amid a period of falling ridership; 6 percent fewer trips were taken across the rail and bus system this year compared to 2016. In a presentation to the Metro board Thursday, Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik Jr. credited targeted enforcement, including increased surveillance through camera technology and rigorous crime analysis, with driving the numbers down.
Pavlik said the decrease came as police honed in questions such as: “Where is the crime occurring, where [are] those trends happening? Really mapping that out and deploying those resources accordingly.” Police are “trying to get to a [place of proactive] instead of reactive policing,” Pavlik said.
But the lower numbers are unlikely to curb perceptions of violence in the system after several recent high-profile events – many of which were captured on video. Additionally, there were 55 criminal offenses committed on buses, compared to 48 during the same period last year; assaults on bus operators increased 20 percent.
And, according to the report, the number of harassment complaints jumped 65 percent — from 37 to 61. A majority of the complaints were classified simply as “harassment” and were not criminal offenses, according to the board presentation. But the number of such incidents more than doubled from 16 in 2016 to 34 in 2017.
“Harassment complaints (non-criminal) usually consist of verbal, unwanted comments that may be sexual in nature,” Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said.
Criminal harassment of a non-sexual nature more than tripled — from five to 16 cases, police said. Ly said such cases reflect complaints received through Metro’s online harassment reporting portal that are not of a sexual nature, such as simple assault.
Metro said the uptick reflected increased harassment reporting through various available channels, including the online portal. Ly said it also reflected factors like the system’s anti-harassment campaign, and efforts to raise awareness of incident reporting “regardless of whether [customers] believe a crime had been committed,” Ly said.
“These efforts have helped increase reporting, and we would take this opportunity to again encourage anyone who feels they are the victim of harassment while on Metro to report it,” she said.
Despite the higher prevalence of harassment, criminal sexual harassment complaints fell to 11 from 16, according to the report.
Even as the number of violent and other serious crimes fell, sexual harassment complaints rose, according to Metro Transit Police stats. (WMATA)
In other areas, police cited a variety of factors for the drop in reported incidents.
Transit Police say their enforcement efforts have been boosted by Metro’s Security Operations Control Center in Hyattsville. The $3.6-million facility, opened in late 2015, centralizes surveillance footage from thousands of cameras in the system, and allows call takers, dispatchers, detectives and video technicians to communicate in the same space. Pavlik credited the department’s digital unit for reducing crime.
“This authority has made a great investment in camera technology whether the [new trains], whether on every bus, the rail stations … if you commit a crime in Metro on a bus or railcar — depending on the series — we’re gonna catch you on camera, we’re gonna catch you,” he said. “So that technology and the way we’re deploying our resources is really driving this number down.”
There were 17 percent fewer thefts of personal objects such as cellphones, police said, a decline that “may be attributed to riders becoming more savvy about the crime and protective of their handheld devices,” according to the report. Bicycle thefts fell by 29 percent, a testament to targeted enforcement, officer-conducted surveillance and the increased use of U-locks, according to police. Still, police said, no lock can make bikes theft-proof.
“It is interesting to note that nearly all victims of bike theft reported using a lock, and most parked their bike in the morning and returned later the same day,” the report said.
Despite the drop, several high-profile incidents this summer brought attention to the safety of the system.
In one, a 14-year-old was shot aboard a Red Line train near the D.C.-Maryland border in early August — the second shooting on a train in the past two years. Last week, Metro Transit Police arrested a 29-year-old man in connection with sexual battery and public masturbation after he allegedly targeted a female train rider in June. It was one of more than 20 indecent exposure arrests for the man, Nathaniel Tyrone Ford, of Southeast D.C.
Police arrested 22-year-old Cesar Morales in late August in connection with the firing of a gunshot down the Columbia Heights escalator that month; the shooting was captured on video. And in late August, a woman was arrested after allegedly throwing urine on a bus operator in another incident that was captured on video. The incident prompted Metro’s largest union to demand the agency take dramatic action to protect drivers from assaults by passengers.
In its report, Metro Transit Police said half of operator assaults occur because of fare disputes or verbal altercations. Four out of five times, police said, the suspect throws an object or physically attacks an operator.
“Strategies to reduce bus operator assaults are high visibility and targeted patrols, fare evasion details, investigations of operator complaints, seminars for bus operators, [police] attendance at bus division safety meetings and department-wide efforts” to catch offenders, police said.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, Metro’s largest union, has called for redesigned bus shields that will inhibit assailants’ ability to attack operators.
Another category that saw a spike: thefts from cars. The number of such incidents rose from 90 last year to 99 in 2017. Police said about two-thirds of thefts from vehicles occurred at station lots in Prince George’s County.
In nearly a quarter of the cases, the item stolen was a visible object that often dangles from a rearview mirror:
A handicap placard.