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Juveniles driving crime on Baltimore transit systems despite intervention efforts

Riders climb onto a MTA bus at the Mondawmin Metro Station, a hub for several MTA bus lines.
Riders climb onto a MTA bus at the Mondawmin Metro Station, a hub for several MTA bus lines. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

As Christopher Fisher, Kristina Gibson and their 9-year-old son struggled to blink away the pepper spray in their eyes, they say, the large group of teens who had jumped them on a city sidewalk casually departed the scene on a No. 22 bus.

Six youths and the Maryland Transit Administration bus driver who drove them from the scene are now charged in the attack on West 41st Street between Hampden and Medfield. The driver is alleged to have recruited the students to attack the family after getting into an argument with Fisher a few stops before.

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The incident just outside the video-monitored bus last June was one in a string of violent transit incidents made public in recent days. Another driver-aided bus attack is alleged to have occurred in Dundalk this summer, and a video has surfaced of a fight on a moving Metro train in which a male appears to try to throw an older man out of a propped-open door.

MTA officials say overall crime on the system's buses, Metro cars, light rail and MARC trains has declined, and the incidents that have been made public are unrelated. But state and city officials say they are concerned about juvenile crime and the perception it has promoted among riders that public transit is unsafe.

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"Reality may be one thing and perception is another," said MTA Police Chief John Gavrilis. "We need to start building on perception, so folks know it's safe to ride on our system."

Gavrilis said overall crime on buses and trains is low, with about one serious incident reported for every 400,000 riders this year. There were 165 incidents reported through August out of an estimated 65 million riders.

MTA officials say they have worked with school officials to address student behavior on public transit.

Juveniles account for the majority of arrests this year for Part I crimes — the most serious offenses, including theft, robbery and assault. Last year, juveniles accounted for nearly 70 percent of such arrests on buses.

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"People don't want to ride the bus specifically because of the violence," said Lance Beasman, 57.

Beasman lives in Northeast Baltimore and works downtown. He said he could easily take the No. 15 line to his job, but he drives instead because he believes it's safer.

"That trumps everything," he said. "If you don't feel safe, there's no use riding the bus."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee, remembers fights on public buses when he was a student.

"We know it's an issue, and it's an issue we have to address," he said. "Kids, especially teenagers, they push the envelope and sometimes get out of hand, especially when you have dozens of them."

Maryland Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr. called the recent incidents "deplorable and unacceptable," and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said city police are supporting MTA police in investigations and monitoring the city's transit systems.

Gibson told police as many as 30 youths participated in the attack on her family. She said her head was banged against the concrete, she lost teeth and her earrings were ripped from her ears, according to court records.

Her son was pepper-sprayed as he tried to defend his mother. Fisher, who was also sprayed, said his eyes burned for days.

The teens were wearing Baltimore City public schools uniforms, Fisher told police. A backpack left at the scene contained a school identification card that police say led them to the 16-year-old boy who threw the first punch at Fisher as his family exited the bus.

Bus driver Karen Murphy, 48, allegedly assured the teens she would wait for them to reboard the bus after the attack, according to court records. During the assault, according to records, she yelled "That's what you get!" at Fisher and his family.

Murphy has been fired. She could not be reached for comment.

David McClure, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, which represents MTA employees, declined to comment on the incident. He said he was waiting for more information from the MTA.

Scott said adults need to provide better examples for kids. He said transit violence has been exacerbated by social media, where serious fights become fodder for online attention.

"It's unfortunate," Scott said. "We have to have conversations with our young people about their behavior in general, but especially when they're going to and from school."

MTA police and city schools officials say those conversations are already happening — and producing results.

Part I crime this year through August was down 33 percent compared to the same period last year, according to MTA Police Capt. Kelly Holman. Crime fell 67 percent from 2007 to 2013, the agency said.

Gavrilis, the MTA police chief, said crime is down 25 percent on buses this year, 6 percent on Metro, and 65 percent on light rail. It has remained flat on MARC trains, he said.

The city school system pays the MTA about $6 million per year for about 34,000 middle- and high-school students to ride the MTA to and from school. Students are eligible for a pass if they live more than a mile and a half from their school.

J. Keith Scroggins, the schools system's chief operating officer, said the system has reduced complaints in recent years through "a great partnership with the MTA."

A tracking system introduced last year allows school officials to determine which students were on which buses and trains at which times, he said. The system is working with the nonprofit Wide Angle Youth Media on a campaign to teach kids how to be "polite and respectful" on MTA lines.

"We realize we are a major provider of ridership for the MTA," Scroggins said. "We also realize that the other customers want to feel comfortable and safe when they ride."

After footage of a female MTA bus driver fighting a young female student went viral in late 2012, the agency introduced cameras on buses, screens to protect drivers from passengers and conflict resolution training.

The MTA has worked with federal officials to confront "snatch and run" thefts of smartphones, and with Baltimore City and Baltimore County police to perform random bus boardings to check for problems.

The agency deploys more uniformed and plainclothes officers during peak travel times for students, including at the Mondawmin Metro station transit hub, Holman said. When a student is arrested, his or her school is targeted for increased messaging about proper bus conduct.

Gavrilis said his agency meets monthly with school police to discuss trends. "Hot lines" — routes experiencing an uptick in problems — are then targeted by police.

"We think that's been pretty effective, because we've been able to pinpoint some areas where we've had some crimes and marshal resources," Gavrilis said.

Brian O'Malley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said it makes sense for the school system to use MTA buses to transport students "from a standpoint of efficiency" and "from a standpoint of preparing young people to use the system when they are working adults."

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He acknowledged the decline in reported crime, but he said more improvement is needed.

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"You don't want people to think, 'Well it's not safe for me,' " he said.

Gavrilis said he was shocked by the video showing the young male trying to throw another man from a moving Metro train.

"We were as struck by that and disgusted by that as everyone else is, but it's not the normal," he said.

He said safety mechanisms on train doors prevent them from opening more than six inches while the train is in motion. If they fail, the train should stop immediately.

The MTA has 1,600 security cameras feeding images to a central command center. Gavrilis said the Metro incident — which was never reported to police — shows MTA police need more help from the public.

"It's the culture out there. With the social media, [other riders] were more interested in getting video of it than calling 911," he said. "We were in awe that nobody called us."

Police reports from several incidents in 2013 obtained by The Baltimore Sun detail juveniles victimizing not only older passengers and bus drivers, but also their peers.

A ninth-grade girl was allegedly beaten in April by a classmate and the classmate's two teenage sisters, and her phone was taken by their mother, after a confrontation spilled out of a No. 15 line MTA bus in the 1700 block of Bloomingdale Road. The three sisters and their mother were all arrested.

Police say a 15-year-old boy on a No. 44 bus in the 1900 block of E. Belvedere Ave. acknowledged that he agreed with a friend to do a "lick" — slang for a robbery — in December.

He snatched a 38-year-old woman's phone, which also contained in its case her driver's license and debit card, police say. She grabbed his hoodie and was pulled off the bus. He broke free and ran.

He and two friends were eventually arrested, police say. Her card had been used to order a pizza.

When an officer asked the boy why he took the phone, police say, he responded, "For real, sir, my mother is having hard times right now."

There were 169 serious incidents on buses in 2013, according to the MTA; nearly 80 percent involved the taking of an electronic device. There were 19 assaults, seven of which were aggravated assaults against bus drivers. There were 65 arrests made in 41 cases, or about 25 percent of the incidents. Forty-five of those arrested — or nearly 70 percent — were juveniles.

A bus driver on the No. 10 line told police a male juvenile shot him in the head with a pellet or BB gun in the 1100 block of W. Lombard St. in August 2013. According to police, the driver said he saw a large group of juveniles riding bikes near his bus and heard one of them say, "Give me the gun; I'm going to shoot the driver."

Three adults and five juveniles were arrested after footage was located "of the suspects riding bikes and walking around in that same area for several hours prior to the assault."

McClure, of the drivers union, said he knows of operators who have been sexually assaulted, stabbed and shot. He said the union, more than anyone, wants increased safety.

McClure said one necessary step — which he has discussed with MTA officials — is reducing the number of students who converge daily on the Mondawmin Metro station, a central bus transfer point for students across the city.

"They want to have altercations because you have several schools coming to Mondawmin," he said. "You get a magnitude of kids who come up there, and they're all over the place."

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