Riding with fear: Violence besets buses, Light Rail

April 24, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

A man leaped onto the bus yelling, "Shut the door."

The first shot rang out as driver Paul Batson pulled away from the curb. In the rear-view mirror, he could see a man running down Saratoga Street brandishing a handgun.

The gunman had been chasing the passenger.

Now, he was chasing the bus.

At least six shots were fired as the lumbering Mass Transit Administration bus picked up speed, witnesses recalled. Bullets pierced two windows, but none of the 20 passengers was struck. A girl screamed and fell to the floor, scared but not hurt.

The shooting at Bus 9043, which took place at 6:15 p.m. on a

weekday last month at Saratoga and Gilmor streets in West Baltimore, left passengers and the driver badly shaken.

"It was frightening," said Mr. Batson, 43. "I've had rocks and bottles thrown at the bus, and you get over that. When they start shooting, that's terrible."

He fared better than Michele Holley, a bus driver who was shot in the leg last October by a passenger in the Forest Park neighborhood.

The shootings offer harrowing examples of how violent crime has spilled from city streets into the region's public transit system.

Leading the onslaught are youngsters, generally between the ages of 12 and 15, who terrorize passengers and MTA employees with abusive language and threatening behavior. Last year, the MTA police for the first time arrested more juveniles than adults, 140 to 133.

The growing problem has led the MTA to take the unusual step of calling on community leaders from every neighborhood along the Central Light Rail Line to convene tomorrow night to explore ways to combat youth crime.

"While there have been acts of violence on transit systems in the past, they have been of a minor nature," said John A. Agro Jr., the MTA's administrator. "What's happening now is a lack of respect for authority, and it's spilled over from the street onto our system."

Bus crime soars

The number of crimes reported annually on MTA buses has more than doubled, to 2,036 last year from 929 in 1989, during a period when ridership has slowly fallen. However the rate actually declined slightly from 1992 to 1993.

Statistics based on ridership show that light rail crime has grown faster than the fledgling system has expanded. During the last half of 1993, after the two southernmost stops were added, 539 crimes were committed on light rail, making its per-passenger crime rate the worst of all the transit modes.

In response, the MTA has embarked on a campaign to reduce crime. More undercover officers are riding on the systems, and ++ patrols have been increased in the afternoons, the peak period for problems.

The agency has set up a hot line offering rewards of up to $1,000 for information about crimes against passengers, property or employees. Callers' identities are confidential.

The MTA plans to hire 22 officers, beefing up its recently reorganized uniformed force by filling 14 vacancies and adding eight new positions to bring the force to 121 officers by March 1995.

"Put as many officers as you want in the system and it still wouldn't prevent random acts of violence," said Mr. Agro. "We need to be more creative to find solutions to these problems."

The MTA plans to involve 20 organizations in tomorrow night's meeting at the World Trade Center. This summer, the agency will offer 10-week jobs to young people to expose them to career opportunities and role models.

"A passenger shouldn't have to worry they have five minutes to fight some juveniles before the next stop on the light rail," said Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer. "We have to get the surrounding communities to believe that this is their system and their property that's being threatened."

Among Baltimore's transit system, Metro is the only one with a downward crime trend. The subway system experienced 1,014 incidents of crime last year, a 26 percent drop from 1,378 incidents in 1992.

Most of the crime the MTA's police force investigates is not violent. Neither a passenger nor an MTA employee has ever been slain on an MTA bus or train.

Of the 3,909 crimes reported by the MTA police last year in the city and suburbs, only 416 were what the agency classifies as the "serious" category of robberies, assaults and vehicle theft.

Teen-agers blamed

Officials blame teen-agers for the majority of vandalism, theft, fighting and the harassment of passengers. The problem often peaks in the late afternoon when schools let out and students can ride on passes issued to them by the city school system.

"What law says we have to raise someone else's child?" said Vidius Franklin, an MTA bus driver with 11 years' experience. "A lot of people are scared. These kids are very disrespectful, and you don't know which child might be packing a piece."

Theodore Robb, a 29-year veteran driver, says he worries every time his MTA bus is swamped by large groups of teens. "What makes anyone think if you have a rowdy kid at school, he's going to be any better when he gets on the bus?

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