MTA reacts to recent assaults, offers a plan to halt violence

Steps include speedier notifications to police agencies, more patrols

December 21, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

Bus operators are being encouraged to call police and stop the vehicle at the first sign of disruptive behavior as part of a plan to curb violence on public transit, the Maryland Transit Administration announced yesterday.

Responding to a series of assaults recently on its buses in Baltimore, the MTA also said it would step up patrols by its police force and forge a closer working relationship with the Baltimore Police Department and the city school system.

Among other steps, the MTA plans to speed notification of city officers when an incident occurs on a bus or other transit facilities in the city. Under this change, city police would receive word of 911 calls involving MTA facilities at the same time as the transit agency's police force so the closest unit could respond.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Friday's editions of The Sun incorrectly stated the congressional district of U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. The congressman represents Maryland's 7th District.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Whoever gets there first," said MTA Police Chief David C. Franklin. "It's not about egos. It's about making the system safe."

At a news conference at the Mondawmin Mall Transit Center, MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld described what he called a "comprehensive approach to disruptive behavior," called Operation: Safe Transport.

"We want to reassure citizens we have taken strong measures to protect public transit users," he said.

Wiedefeld was joined at the news conference by Franklin, city Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh.

As part of the plan, the MTA will take new steps to keep buses without working video surveillance cameras off the streets, said MTA spokeswoman Jawauna Greene.

Most MTA buses have surveillance, but the camera on the bus that was the scene of the most violent of the recent incidents was not working, according to government sources.

Greene would not confirm that the MTA has no video record of the Dec. 4 incident in which a 26-year-old woman was severely injured in Hampden when she was beaten and kicked by a group of middle-school students. But she said the agency has changed its procedures for dealing with nonworking cameras since the incident, which is being investigated as a possible racial hate crime.

"Recent events have highlighted that this is an important part of our security initiative," she said.

Previously, if an operator coming on duty found that a camera was broken, he or she would write a repair order for the next time the bus was due for maintenance, Greene said.

Now, the MTA will make every effort to fix the camera or replace the bus instead of taking it out with no working surveillance system, the spokeswoman said. In cases where the camera cannot be fixed and no replacement bus is available, the repair would be expedited, she said.

The MTA also will use the cameras in new ways, said Franklin.

When surveillance cameras record cases of rowdy behavior by students that don't rise to the level of a crime, Franklin said, the MTA will share the video with principals and the city schools police force. In addition, MTA officials said they would display decals on transit vehicles notifying passengers that they are under video surveillance.

Wiedefeld said MTA officials recently met with city schools Chief Executive Officer Andres Alonso to discuss student behavior on mass transit. About 30,000 to 35,000 city students use its transit facilities each day, according to the MTA.

Wiedefeld said the MTA is working with the schools to develop programs to spread the word about what is unacceptable behavior on transit systems.

One of the most fundamental of the changes is that operators have been instructed to stop the bus, rather than continue to drive the route, if passengers get rowdy.

"We want that operator to call us and stop that bus," Franklin said. "If they feel a sense that something's happening, they should call immediately."

The chief said that since the recent spate of violent incidents, his department has added 12 routes to the list of 20 that require extra attention.

The actions come after a series of violent incidents on MTA buses in recent weeks.

In addition to the Hampden incident, in which the female victim's boyfriend also was beaten, on a No. 27 bus, a girl was stabbed in the arm Tuesday on a No. 51 bus near Mondawmin Mall in an attack that led to the arrest of two juveniles.

Last week, two passengers on a No. 64 bus in Brooklyn were attacked by five men. No arrests have been made.

Cummings, a Democrat who represents the 3rd District in Congress, praised the plan's emphasis on reaching young people and called for a policy of "zero tolerance" toward transit violence.

"We've got to make sure our young people understand that when they get on that bus, they have to conduct themselves in a certain way."

Cummings played down the role of race as a motivating factor in recent attacks.

"Violence is violence," he said. "It makes no difference whether it's white on black, black on white. The fact is that it's violence."

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