Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro Transit Police want to be strategically transparent

September 27, 2011 - 10:30 AM
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Hello, riders. (Photo: John Hendel)

With 420 sworn security officers and just over 100 special security officers, the Metro Transit Police is tasked with covering a 1,500-mile Transit Zone — they're the only tristate police force in the United States that's not federal. The force's few hundred members are burdened with a significant amount of territory to cover, and as such, a lot of information and legal issues to coordinate. MTPD Chief Michael Taborn is well acquainted with these difficulties. The Prince Georges County resident has been part of Metro security since 1974, two years before President Gerald Ford even signed the bill authorizing the formal commission of the Metro Transit Police. He's led the MTPD for the past three years and amid Metro's communications refocusing, his police force has been reaching out to Metro riders on crime issues in new ways as well.

The tall chief stood in front of a half dozen members of the public as well as representatives of the Riders Advisory Council Wednesday evening last week and explained the difficulties of juggling so many jurisdictions and coordinating with so many local and federal police agencies.

"Officers sometimes carry around nine different citation books," Taborn explained, talking in a matter-of-fact tone at the front of the large Jackson Graham Building meeting room. They need to be prepared to know and deal with the laws of Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia at any given time. He called information-sharing procedures and meetings "probably the most important thing that we do."

Taborn's Metro police have taken a renewed commitment to communication and strategy to heart in certain visible ways in recent weeks and months. Take the last two weeks, for instance — MTPD have coordinated with Metro's communications team to reach out and seek public input on two cases. The first involved a stabbing and attempted robbery near the Huntington Metro station on the morning of September 19. WMATA immediately tweeted out the news and identified the two suspects sought ("late teen/early 20s, BM, 5'6-5'7 dreds") with the appropriate numbers to call. That message has been retweeted 32 times. On September 26, Metro released a press release asking for further information in another MTPD case. The short release referred to a crime committed earlier in the week:

Metro Transit Police detectives are seeking the public’s assistance as they investigate a shooting believed to have occurred near a bus stop in Oxon Hill, Md., yesterday afternoon.

The incident is believed to have occurred shortly before 8:30 a.m. yesterday near the intersection of Glassmanor Drive and Irvington Street in Oxon Hill. It is not known whether the victim, a 53-year-old man, was physically at the bus stop when he was shot.

The victim, who has a cognitive disability, is believed to have traveled by bus and train to a church in the District. Upon arrival, others noticed that the man did not look well and called EMS. Shortly thereafter, it was determined that he was suffering from a gunshot wound.

The man was transported to an area hospital where he remains in stable condition.

The crime sounds heartbreaking. WMATA asked people with relevant information to call the Metro Transit Police. In a way, this seems innovative and good to crowdsource the public's help and offer an apparently transparent window into some of the Metro crime being committed. MTPD has reached out in similar ways before, as in past May's carjacking case.

The way that the MTPD is operating reflects broader changes at WMATA and a transformation in how they're doing business — specifically, the transit agency hopes to target the areas that matter and make them count. Does tweeting out this repair information help writers? Does talking to this journalist help? Does providing this spreadsheet make a difference to the quality of WMATA ridership and service? Sometimes this reevaluated outreach manifests in social media campaigns, in town halls, in the ability to upload money to your SmarTrip card online. Other times it means abandoning elements that WMATA deems to not work so well.

Case in point: WMATA features a MTPD blotter to chronicle the various crimes handled by the department, similar to the blotters many police departments offer. Its last update, however, was on March 31, 2011 after what looked like a steady and regularly updated month of infractions that included intent to distribute marijuana, a warning about consuming drinks, obstruction of justice, bike theft, and various other transit violations. Why did these regular and transparent updates cease half a year ago? I asked Chief Taborn and chief spokesperson Dan Stessel in person last Wednesday after the Riders Advisory Council town hall.

Attempted robbery/stabbing outside Huntington Sta. MTPD seeking 2 suspects late teen/early20s, BM, 5'6-5'7 dreds. Call 202-962-2121 or 911.
Sep 19 via TweetDeckFavoriteRetweetReply

"Why hasn't the blotter been updated since March?" I asked, curious about a rather sudden end to the crime reporting.

The answer I received from Taborn and Stessel in Jackson Graham was that the MTPD police blotter was a labor-intensive feature of the website. A person had to sit there and enter each and every crime, and they questioned the value of including such a nameless chronicle. To be fair, the MTPD do include a bigger batch of crime statistics, as they did last week. We know now what the 19 most dangerous WMATA stations were in recent months as well as overall crime rates (there were 355 MTPD arrests from April 1 to June 30, for instance). What Stessel emphasized was their overall desire to be strategic in their transparency and make the most of communicating a crime, such as in the Twitter-enhanced case of the Huntington Metro stabbing I mentioned above. Stessel compared the section to the disruptions page, which WMATA is also in the process of revamping and, hopefully, humanizing.

The underlying point has virtue — a large institution's communication should be meaningful, especially when crime is involved.

But that's the same reason that this jumbled communications challenge, from how MTPD writes citations to how it communicates crime to the public, needs to be consistently transparent and examined. Taborn seemed receptive enough to transparency and the recent MTPD coordination efforts with Stessel's communications team suggest the same. The blotter remains a glaring gap in this openness, and my own thought is that the website should be revised to either explain or be rid of the section completely if WMATA isn't going to commit to it in the future. If relevant crime information is going to be communicated to the public in different, more strategic ways, that's fine — but these efforts should be clarified in the coming months, particularly if the blotter wil continue to sit dead. There's only a few hundred transit police officers and a lot to communicate, from in the classroom to rider outreach to educational videos to abandoned blotters to reaching out for crime-solving help through the communications team, and I can imagine some of the difficulties. Communication is at the core of Metro's improved crime-solving abilities, ostensibly, given their recent adoption of the Compstat program known at WMATA as Metrostat. The coming months will involve streamlining how WMATA reports information to the public, I hope, and making use of the new communications to do so in an open and meaningful way.

Yet I do see one big reason why Metro would say there's no strategic wisdom in transcribing a daily blotter. Does anyone care? As I wrote above, there were barely half a dozen riders who showed up at the MTPD open town-hall meeting. WMATA officials comprised the majority in the room. Occasionally a lightning-rod issue like the notion of bag checks will inspire some frenzy in Metro riders, but the lack of public input and attention is notable. Why spend labor providing information to a ridership that doesn't respond or notice? But that's its own bigger question.

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