- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Words of warning: Beware of pickpockets and snatch-and-grabs. Thieves ride public transit, too — and cell phones, iPods and the like are some of their favorite targets.

Metro opened its doors on March 27, 1976, with five stations on the Red Line, from Rhode Island Avenue Northeast to Farragut North, covering just 4.6 miles. None of Metro’s 51,260 pioneering riders that March day was yet in possession of an iPhone or iPod. Now encompassing five lines, 86 stations and 106.3 miles, with the Silver Line under development, Metro is experiencing an uptick in robberies because of the proliferation of cell phones, iPods of all sizes, and designer coats and handbags. (The initial phase of the Silver Line, linking Tysons Corner and Reston to the existing Falls Church stations, is slated to open in 2013. The second phase, to continue west to Dulles International Airport and Ashburn in Loudoun County, does not have a construction date yet.)

In May, Metro Transit Police activated a Robbery Suppression Squad. The plainclothes unit has made more than 60 arrests. On a recent Wednesday, five young adults were arrested at Gallery Place/Chinatown when an iPhone was used in a decoy operation, according to Deputy Chief Jeff P. Delinski.

“What we’ve seen is a dramatic increase in robberies, particularly in trains and on platforms. These have not been carried out with force or weapons, but instead have been perpetrated by pickpockets in snatch-and-grabs,” Chief Delinski said.

Gallery Place/Chinatown, with its active night life, sports venue and proximity to restaurants, movies and shopping, has become “D.C.’s Times Square,” the deputy chief says. Metro has responded by deploying a dozen officers Friday and Saturday nights, complemented by the presence of Metropolitan Police.

Between 7 and 8 p.m., three uniformed transit officers are visible patrolling the east side of Seventh Street Northwest, where the 70 bus arrives, and the south side of H Street, where many buses - including the 80 and X2 - arrive. Metropolitan Police are visible in cars and on foot as well.

Transit police have arrest powers within 150 feet of a Metrobus stop.

“Young kids, usually in groups, do the robbing. Or people try to be slick and bump up against you,” says Taylor Williams, 16, a junior at Flowers High School in Prince George’s County. She has seen people’s iPods, iPhones and wallets taken on the train and bus.

“The Metro has designed itself to be one of the safest systems in the country. There are high ceilings and few places to hide. I feel safe on the train,” says Paul Lockaby, 25, a software engineer in Fairfax who has been taking the Orange Line into the city for four years.

Others say they feel safe, too, though they have seen violence firsthand.

“I saw a boy get jumped right there,” says Celeste Freeman, a sophomore at Howard University, pointing to the Seventh and H Street exit of Gallery Place/Chinatown. “Late one weekend, after midnight, these five boys robbed this other boy and threw him down the escalator.”

“I feel safe. But if you don’t want your phone taken, don’t keep it out. When you play around, texting or gaming, people are going to take advantage,” says Ms. Freeman, a native of Wisconsin who primarily takes the Red and Green Lines.

Metro Transit Police are a very unique police organization. It is the only trijurisdictional agency in the country. They have arrest powers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Wherever the Metro goes, bus and rail, is their jurisdiction,” says professor Richard Sutton, adjunct faculty in George Washington University’s police science program.

“Officers in my classes were interested in how to better coordinate with other police agencies in the area. They were highly motivated and very curious,” says Mr. Sutton, a retired Department of Justice senior policy adviser who rode one of the first Yellow Line trains out of the Huntington station on Dec. 17, 1983, the first extension of the system beyond the Capital Beltway.

On June 4, 1976, President Ford signed a bill passed by Congress authorizing the Metro Transit Police Department, according to Metro’s Web site.

Today, 450 sworn police officers, 106 special police and 24 civilian security personnel serve 3.5 million people within a 1,500-square-mile area.

As Metro has evolved, so has its crime. Initial speculation that crime would be rampant on the rails did not materialize because of the visibility of transit police. In Metrorail’s first year, running weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. with no weekend or holiday service, there were 27 arrests, the majority for disorderly conduct.

However, as Metro has expanded, so has its crime. In 1979, concerned residents advocated for around-the-clock transit police presence at the Minnesota Avenue station. In the 1980s, Metro cracked down on its own employees as well as bandits who stole money from fare machines. Vehicle theft increased as stations with parking lots were added to the system.

Also, like any urban police, officers are targets of gunmen.

In Metro’s more than 33 years, two officers have given their lives in the line of duty. In 1993, 11-year veteran Officer Harry Davis Jr. was killed after pulling over a stolen car in the parking lot of Landover station. In June 2001, Officer Marlon Morales, with less than a year on the job, was shot at the 13th Street exit of the U Street station. He died of his wounds days later.

“The same criminals who are up in the streets, we deal with in the subway,” says Gary A. Padgett, a retired Metro Transit Police detective who worked Morales’ homicide case.

“When Officer Morales stopped Walter Johnson, who evaded his fare, he did so not knowing Johnson was carrying a gun he had used to shoot someone in Philadelphia only days earlier. I truly believe Johnson was in the area looking to get even,” says Mr. Padgett.

A routine background check by Morales would have revealed that Johnson was wanted for not reporting to his parole officer in Philadelphia. In July 2004, a D.C. Superior Court judge sentenced Johnson to life in prison.

In December 2007, Metro police dedicated a new substation at 5315 First Place NE, near the Fort Totten station, in Morales’ honor. The District 1 headquarters coordinates transit police patrolling Metro’s northern stations.

For fiscal 2009, 222.9 million rode Metrorail and 133.8 million rode Metrobus. According to crime statistics for January through September, the probability of being a victim of a Metro Part I Crime - aggravated assault, burglary, homicide, larceny, motor vehicle theft, rape or robbery - was 3.99 per million Metro riders.

Through September of this year, Metro Transit Police have received 44,024 calls for service, made 1,490 arrests, issued 4,996 criminal or civil citations and written 3,821 fare-evasion citations.

In a proactive effort to ease the long-simmering tension between working professionals headed home and waves of youths who ride Metro, the system initiated heightened patrols during after-school hours on Aug. 24 to coincide with the opening of the 2009-10 school year. Continuing from previous academic years, a daily conference call between transit police officials and D.C. Public Schools administrators has increased coordination and outreach efforts to improve student civility on Metro.

In March 2007, as a result of student focus groups, Metro and the school system launched a public awareness campaign, “Respect: Give it. Get it” to encourage more respectful behavior. The most recent joint effort of the school system, Metropolitan Police and Metro Transit Police provides additional attention to 12 stations in the District and Prince’s George’s County.

Though the total number of Part 1 crimes so far is higher than last year - 1,363 between January and September compared with 1,285 for all of 2008 - riders hope the decline in some crimes is a trend that will continue.

Larceny is down from a high of 639 last year to 562, and motor-vehicle thefts are down to 123 from a high of 144 in 2008.

• John Muller is a writer living in Montgomery County.

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