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Violent crime increases on MBTA

As rates fall elsewhere, subway assaults rise

By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff, 7/13/2003

The rate of violent crimes has been flat or falling across the city and the country over the last two years -- but not on the MBTA.

Since 2000, alleged felonies involving violence on the MBTA's buses and trains have risen 11 percent, and subway assaults jumped 27 percent.

The hot spots are busy T stops in central Boston and south of downtown, often where bus lines, commuter rail, and the subway converge -- Forest Hills and Quincy Center, Downtown Crossing and Back Bay. Lynn is the only commuter rail-only station that saw more than 30 felonies last year.

''We are experiencing more violent crime,'' said the MBTA police force's crime analyst, Mark W. Bachta, who reviews statistics from the four subway lines, commuter rail, the Silver Line, and the bus system. ''It is a significant increase, but keep in mind that most of the assaults are simple assaults, fistfights -- not stabbings, muggings, or shootings.''

The MBTA's police chief, Joseph C. Carter, blames the trend on increasingly aggressive schoolchildren and a lack of staff.

He said he hopes 26 new officers, scheduled to start next month, will make a difference.

There's only one MBTA police officer for every 6,000 riders on the system during peak travel times, Carter said.

''We have a very small department. We can't be everywhere,'' said Carter, who took charge of the force in January. ''We need to use our resources in a very strategic, coordinated way, to reduce the fear and increase the confidence of the public.''

Gena Guerrier, 21, said Carter has a long way to go to make her comfortable riding the Orange Line. ''Do I feel safe? Not really,'' said Guerrier, who rides to downtown Boston from Forest Hills every day.

When she was in high school, she rode the T to classes, she said, but it didn't feel as dangerous as it does now.

''I try to come home early, and I don't like to ride alone,'' Guerrier said Friday, as she waited on the Forest Hills platform with a friend.

Statistics bear out her fears. Though the Red Line reports more crimes, the Orange Line, with fewer passengers, is the most dangerous.

Just over two felonies are reported on the Orange Line for every 1,000 riders, while on the Red Line, 1.7 felony crimes are reported per 1,000 riders.

The Green Line, Blue Line, and commuter rail lines have less than 1 felony crime incident per 1,000 riders, according to the MBTA.

Felicia Nelson, who rides to work on commuter rail from Lawrence and takes the T to South Station, said a higher-profile police presence would make her feel safer. ''I see more construction workers than policemen,'' she said.

Carter said he appreciates the anxiety.

''Yes, the level of crime is too high for me, and we're developing implementation strategies to approach that.'' But, he added, ''the stations are not out of control.''

The most crime-ridden stations in Greater Boston are Forest Hills, South Station, Downtown Crossing, Park Street, and Back Bay.

Assaults at those stations rose 23 percent over the last two years.

In the outer suburbs, crime is far less serious: The entire commuter rail system saw 200 pickpockets and other nonviolent thefts and 35 auto thefts last year.

However, even on commuter rail the numbers are climbing.

The theft rate is up 37 percent over the last two years, and auto thefts at commuter rail lots have risen 21 percent.

Parking lots at the commuter rail station in Lynn and the T stop at Forest Hills were the scene of seven auto thefts each last year, followed by North Quincy and South Weymouth with five each.

''One of our biggest challenges is motor vehicle offenses in our parking lots,'' Carter said. ''We have thousands of parking spots.''

He said his crime-fighting strategy centers on increasing the visibility of his 221 patrol officers while encouraging T riders to report incidents before they escalate into violent crimes.

The MBTA police also has detectives assigned to Boston's Youth Violence Task Force.

''During the nonschool months, we see decreases in crime,'' Carter said. ''During the school year, we see a lot of disagreements, skirmishes, among young people. Some of them are as minor as a shoving match, which is technically an assault, and they range to things that actually get out of control.''

MBTA police reports show the typical assault involves groups of people under age 18.

In one incident at Quincy Center in September, a teenage girl allegedly pulled a knife on another girl while passengers waited for the bus.

An alleged mugging at South Station in September involved a large group of teenage boys who attacked another teenager after stealing his hat.

Other crime reports include school-age groups throwing a bottle at an elderly T passenger in Jackson Square, and teenagers fighting at Ashmont, Ruggles, and Mattapan stations.

On a typical weekday, 379,750 passengers ride an MBTA bus, 132,800 take the commuter rail, 241,600 ride the Red Line, 230,250 board the Green, 165,600 take the Orange Line, and 58,200 the Blue Line.

Carter vows to lower crime rates across the MBTA system, but said it's a tough challenge.

''You basically have a closed system,'' he said. ''A lot of people, a lot of tension. We're in some very tough economic times.''

Other MBTA statistics show:

* Violent robbery is most common at Downtown Crossing, with 20 incidents, Forest Hills, with 19, and Jackson Square, with 10.

At North Station, which had no violent muggings in 2000 and 2001, there were 10 such incidents last year.

* Thefts increased only slightly system-wide, but South Station, Forest Hills, Lynn, Park Street, and Quincy Center were host to the greatest number of incidents.

* The most dangerous commuter rail stations -- not including urban hubs such as South Station and Back Bay -- are Lynn, Halifax, South Weymouth, and Kingston.

* South Station, the second-highest crime station, had the highest number of nonviolent thefts last year at 55. Because South Station has an interstate bus terminal, Amtrak platforms, commuter rail, and subway connections, a vast number of people, many of them carrying bags and luggage, pass through it.

* The Park Street station, as well as the Green Line, ''historically has been a haven for pickpockets,'' Bachta said.

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at tcambanis@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/13/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.