Four years ago, Metro Transit Police arrested a 29-year-old man on a sexual battery charge after a transit rider said he targeted her while on a train at the West Falls Church station.

Officers arrested the man, who police say also had targeted the passenger a year earlier. Police also knew the suspect: He had been arrested more than 24 times on indecent exposure charges and was on the D.C. sex offender registry.

Despite the repeated offenses, Metro couldn’t ban him from the transit system, saying the only way to keep him off trains would be if a judge barred him. Members of Metro’s Safety and Operations Committee took a step Thursday toward changing that policy, voting to temporarily ban people from Metro property who are arrested for sex offenses or crimes involving firearms or other dangerous weapons.

“Everyone deserves a system that’s clean and safe,” said Metro board member Devin Rouse, who works in the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Railroad Safety.

From January through June, Metro said 89 incidents of indecent exposure were reported to transit police, more than double the number during the same six months in 2019. Last year, Metro police investigated 149 such cases — 11 more than in all of 2019, despite ridership plummeting during the pandemic. Aggravated assaults are up this year, while larcenies and robberies are down.

The proposed temporary ban, which still needs the full Metro board’s approval, comes as the agency is hoping to lure passengers back after losing more than three-quarters of its ridership during the pandemic.

Police experts say trauma from sex offenses and fear of such assaults can cause riders to abandon transit, creating even emptier spaces for crimes such as indecent exposure and sexual battery to proliferate.

“We believe that because there [are] less people on the trains and buses, that this is an opportunity for these individuals who commit these crimes because there’s less witnesses, less opportunity for other individuals to get involved and maybe intimidate them because of the number of riders,” Metro Transit Police Chief Ronald A. Pavlik Jr. told board members Thursday.

Under the proposed policy, officers would issue a citation to anyone arrested on suspicion of a sex offense or a crime involving firearms, banning first-time offenders from the system for 14 days. Second offenses would result in a 30-day ban, while a year-long ban would be imposed on people with three or more arrests involving sex crimes or weapons. The bans could be appealed within five days, and independent lawyers hired by Metro would review the cases, Pavlik said.

He said the restriction would be enforced when a violator is caught committing a crime — an action that would trigger a trespass charge intended to keep offenders from reentering the transit system.

The American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. opposes the plan, saying it would ban riders before any subsequent legal proceedings.

“In our criminal legal system, people are innocent until proven guilty; if they vote for this, [Metro’s] unelected board proposes to reverse that presumption and punish people based on accusations alone,” Nassim Moshiree, ACLU-D.C.'s policy director, said in a statement.

The organization also said the policy would allow a department criticized for excessive-force tactics and overpolicing of Black and Brown riders to make more racially discriminatory stops.

Pavlik told board members he considered blocking SmarTrip cards to enforce the ban, but said it would prove too challenging and would not work on unregistered accounts. Fare cards bought at kiosks don’t require registration and cannot be traced. A ban on an individual wouldn’t force that person out of Metro’s 91 stations or 3,000-plus rail cars and buses.

“Metro Transit Police officers would not go looking for these individuals once they’re served,” Pavlik said. “What would happen is if that individual conducts himself in such a way that it’s going to draw police attention and they commit another criminal offense, that officer would stop that individual for the offense they’re committing, and once their name is queried, it would come up that this individual is banned, barred or suspended.”

Pavlik said a banned person could still board a train or bus. As long as the person didn’t commit a crime, “we would not be aware of it,” he said.

“Seems like a big loophole to me,” board member Tom Bulger said.

Rouse said the policy “seems a little lax, a little lenient,” but noted it could be strengthened or changed.

Pavlik said the policy would allow police to charge violators with criminal trespassing or unlawful entry, and safety committee members unanimously agreed to give police the extra leeway.

“Acknowledging the limitations,” Metro board member Steve McMillin said, “when you’re trying to secure an open system like ours, I think this is a good common sense change.”