Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Who commits the most crimes on the Metro? Young people

September 29, 2011 - 09:35 AM
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Don't trust anyone under 30? (Photo: flickr/mllerustad)

Are the kids going to be all right? Bleak news regarding the younger residents of Washington, D.C. seems everywhere lately. One statistic emerged this week suggesting that 10% of the 4,000 8th-graders in the D.C. public middle schools have tried to kill themselves, according to a Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey from last fall. Can you imagine? About one in 10 tried to commit suicide.

During last week's Metro Transit Police town hall, MTPD Chief Michael Taborn declared that young people are responsible for "probably 75% of the crime being committed" on the Metro. There have been 355 arrests in the second quarter of 2011. These crimes may be another manifestation of the disturbance that caused one in 10 DCPS eighth-graders to commit suicide, I would suggest. Both issues likely involve a certain level of emotional unease.

And what exactly constitutes a young person? Taborn had initially not specified and referred more broadly to "youth disorder" and its attendant problems during the summer season when teenagers could roam freely. A follow-up question from the audience led Taborn to specify that he meant people from around the age of 10 to 21, 22, 23 years old ... not exclusively teenagers so much as younger people in general. Taborn added that some interpret the word "juveniles" as offensive and one he generally avoids.

"Your simple assaults — most of those are young people," Taborn said.

Younger Metro riders have caused concern for a long time. In January of 2011, video of young Metro riders harassing a man at the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station went viral. John Ayala, one of the head Guardian Angels grassroots security force, told me he thought the city's young people were waging war on its residents in recent years when we talked earlier this summer. He described how groups would gather and a certain, reckless mentality would take over that could lead to public disturbances, especially on the Metro. One questioner at last week's MTPD town hall talked about how many young people she saw going through the fare gates without paying and suggested a giant video screen so other Metro riders could see the violation. Would that make them more accountable? When a group of dancing teenagers, who called themselves the Metro Party Boys, took to the trains in July, they told me they did so to counter the bad impression people have begun to develop of young people.

What does all this mean for Metro Transit Police who observe large groups of teenagers and other young people gathering at the Metro stations and creating problems.

"You can't write a citation to a juvenile unless it's a warning," Taborn explained last Wednesday. "They know there's no consequence to that."

And given the thousands of kids who ride Metro every day, there's demonstrable reason to consider how to encourage a culture of safety and etiquette. A year ago, Metro security forces installed a device called the Mosquito in the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station, which emitted a high-pitched noise that only teenagers can hear. It was meant to dissuade loitering but people quickly crusaded against the device as ageist and it was removed a month after its installation. The D.C. Public Schools alone has more than 50,000 students, many of whom ride the city's transit and walk along its roads. The recent statistic regarding suicide attempts is worrying. What does it signify? I imagine instability. I imagine trouble. And I imagine a problem that ties not too distantly into this Metro security one that Taborn spoke of recently. The children who are reportedly suicidal are not, in many cases, likely the same people committing crimes on the Metro, of course, but both issues speak to a fundamental disorder in the universe of the District's young people.

How to solve this from MTPD's perspective? No single answer emerged from last week's town hall. Taborn mentioned there's already some outreach into the schools and that some educational Metro Transit Police videos already exist. One suggestion was to corral those videos in a more meaningful way to present them online and to connect with younger riders. The police chief also mentioned that the MTPD would be exploring a cadet program in the coming months. These initiatives are important — and given recent signs of an emotionally complicated demographic in D.C., it will benefit all of us to continue noticing, pursuing, and raising awareness of this conversation and steps toward a greater peace domestically and in our transit.

"We are the public school bus for District of Columbia students," Taborn said.

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