The number of crimes reported on Baltimore's light rail system has risen dramatically this year at a time when overall crime is down on other forms of public transit.
Mass Transit Administration officials attributed much of the increase to higher light rail ridership. The southern segment of the Central Light Rail Line was completed in June, and the MTA estimates that there may be twice as many passengers riding the system as a year ago. The disruptive behavior of adolescent boys, often as young as 12, also appears to be contributing to the problem, officials contend.
The young riders have become a recurrent nightmare for adult passengers and light rail operators alike. The problem is not easily quantified, since not all incidents of abusive behavior and vandalism show up in crime reports.
Alarmed by the trend, MTA officials this week announced a wide-ranging campaign to crack down on crime on light rail, Metro and buses, as well as a shake-up of the agency's 110-person police department.
"I intend to overreact to this situation," said MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. "I won't accept crime on our service, destruction to our property, or threats to our operators."
MTA police reported 325 crimes in 1992 on light rail, which began partial service in April and full service in May. This year, 553 crimes were reported through September.
Last year there were four robberies, 10 assaults and two vehicle thefts reported on light rail. During the first nine months of 1993, there were 11 robberies, 24 assaults, and 10 car thefts.
Crime on MTA buses is down 10 percent, from 1,499 incidents in the first nine months of 1992 to 1,355 as of September 1993. Subway crime fell from 1,063 to 691 in the same period, a 35 percent drop.
Ridership on the buses and subway is slightly lower than it was a year ago.
Most of the crimes on MTA property are not serious. Of 3,731 crimes reported to MTA police last year, only 397, or about 11 percent, were in the "serious" category of robberies, assaults or
It has just been in the past few months that the MTA has been troubled by disruptive groups of teen-age boys, said Vertis A. Park, the agency's acting police chief.
"They are unruly," said Mr. Park. "It's the worst we've had in a long time."
Typically, the youngsters ride the buses, Metro or light rail, punching or kicking at doors or windows. Once, a group of youths opened up the emergency hatch in a bus roof and tried "wind surfing" -- sticking their heads out the bus, he said.
Elise Scott, a regular light rail commuter, said she is hesitant to board a train when she sees high school age riders. Most other adult riders are "really afraid" of them, too, she said.
"I love the light rail in the summer, but when school opened, it was a disaster," said Mrs. Scott, a city resident who commutes from Howard Street to Patapsco Avenue. "The kids are eating. The language is horrible. But we can't do anything. It's not like we can jump off."
Mr. Agro said the MTA has recently created a "special response squad" of six MTA police officers to ride the systems during peak hours. The agency has also assigned officers to the Westport, Cherry Hill and Patapsco Avenue light rail stations where problems with vandalism and theft have been greatest.
The administrator said he has contacted city school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey to begin working on ways to reduce problems created by school-age children.
The MTA has also formed an internal task force to address safety concerns.
"We are in the midst of experiencing a heightened awareness of crime and its impact on our customers," Mr. Agro said. "When I see the numbers, I also have a heightened concern."
Victim tells of snatched purse
On Oct. 15, a 38-year-old state employee had her purse snatched as she boarded a light rail car at 7 a.m. at Patapsco Avenue. She fell down on the concrete platform and hit her head during the altercation. The thief eluded a police officer. "Something like that happens and you get leery," said the woman, who asked not to be identified. "It was over in a minute. They tugged at the purse and it was gone."
MTA officials said efforts to increase security have involved reassignment of personnel and no new hires. The agency's 87 uniformed officers are responsible for security on all MTA property, including the 10 Metro trains, 10 light rail trains and 750 buses that may be in service at any one time.
This week Mr. Agro named Lt. Bernard B. Foster Sr., former commander of the state police barracks at John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, as the MTA's new police chief. Lieutenant Foster, 40, of Conowingo in Cecil County, a 20-year state police veteran, will be detailed by the state police to the MTA, Mr. Agro said. He replaces Mr. Park, who had been acting chief since July 30.