- (Photo: Jay Westcott)
Metro rider and GW Today writer Kurtis Hiatt wrote an April 13 op-ed for the Washington Post called "Why I No Longer Feel Safe on Metro." His goal, he told me, was "to light a fire under Metro, hoping to instigate an investigation into the transit agency's security policies." The piece begins with a March 31 tale of transit violence and a fellow passenger screaming "fuck the white man!" Hiatt writes:
What happened next is a blur. I remember hearing “Look me in the eyes!” Now the voice was close — too close. I turned. The man had squared up directly in front of me, his face level with mine. I met his rage-filled eyes the moment before he head-butted me. Then his right fist came around in a hook, connecting just above my cheek.
Disturbing. But although WMATA can't be expected to eradicate all racially charged unstable riders, God knows, Metro can play a critical role in the aftermath of such harassment or violence, in pursuing the offenders. Hiatt sees "a series of critical failures by Metro to protect its passengers" in the moments after this recent attack. As with sexual harassment, WMATA has responsibility in managing these troubling encounters, and according to Hiatt, fell short in three ways.
1) The emergency call box didn't seem to work on the train. Metro General Manager Richard Sarles has ensured that trains under his watch include the Transit Police phone number as a means of safety but the number-one way riders feel safe is likely the big emergency button that ostensibly puts riders in contact with the train conductor. "Call boxes at the end of each rail car enable any rider to report an emergency to the operator," WMATA claims. "Train operator is in constant radio communication with Central Control." The agency also features similar call boxes at stations on pylons and watches stations via closed-circuit television. But Hiatt noticed a woman at the call box who received, it seems, no answer. "Why isn’t the conductor responding?" he wonders. In the past, riders have questioned whether the intercoms are, to use one man's word, "useless."
2) WMATA personnel allegedly failed to pay attention to the crime. At the Smithsonian Metro, our op-ed writer burst from his train and ran to the train conductor. Did he maybe know what was happening? The rider "didn’t get an answer — or any acknowledgment at all, in fact — but [the conductor] appeared to be talking to someone on his radio." Confusion dominates much of the account, especially in the next moments. Hiatt says he saw the alleged harasser jumping the fare gates to leave the station and describes himself and other riders yelling about the incident. "Was the station manager calling the police? Was he doing anything? It was impossible to tell." Yes, I believe it was tough to tell. The scene sounds entirely hectic and we should hope the station manager was aware and trying to gather his or her bearings and contact Transit Police. The op-ed writer doesn't give us enough information to assess the degree to which the train conductor or station manager truly neglected duties but it's unfortunate that events unfolded the way they did, with his own alleged assailant escaping out onto the platform and escalators. Hiatt later conveyed that he was "not confident" that WMATA employs staff "who know the response procedures and effectively carry them out."
3) Metro Transit Police allegedly arrived too slow. Hiatt was on the phone with a dispatcher for 15 minutes before an officer showed up from Alexandria. Why hadn't the MTPD coordinated with local police? With under 500 officers for upwards of 80 Metro stations, Transit Police needs to coordinate with jurisdictional police. Hiatt told me that if not for this 15 minutes of confusion, he wouldn't have even considered writing the op-ed. He recognizes that WMATA's responsibility is to respond correctly — "The fact that this assault happened was not Metro's fault," he noted in an exchange with me.
The arrest of his alleged assailant is captured in the MTPD police blotter: the Smithsonian arrest for Simple Assault (Assault and Battery) clocked at 7:21:56 a.m. on March 31.
But despite the arrest, Hiatt plans to file further complaint against the transit agency, according to a letter he sent to Unsuck D.C. Metro, and collect other stories (via firstname.lastname@example.org) of train violence and Metro neglect. He hopes to bring the issue before the Metro Board of Directors. "I've filed a formal complaint with Metro," Hiatt writes to Unsuck readers, "requesting an investigation into the situation and a review of its emergency policies. I haven't heard back yet." He tells me that the recent discussion surrounding his experience has already revealed riders who have suffered "similar experiences."
Metro chief spokesperson Dan Stessel confirms that the agency is "aware" of Hiatt's concerns, will be conducting a review of how the call for police was prioritized and dispatched, and plans to share what it learns with Hiatt once the review concludes in a few days. One of WMATA's deputy chiefs reached out to Hiatt on Sunday to discuss the incident. Hiatt calls the follow-up call "a pleasant surprise," if not entirely satisfying. Hiatt says the deputy chief apologized for the incident and described "disappointment" in how the procedures were carried out. That conversation also affirmed that, based on what the deputy chief knew of the facts, the Transit Police should have been coordinating with D.C. police to address what would have been considered a "crime in progress." But that investigation will continue. Stessel adds that the rail intercoms, which seemed to fail at a critical moment in Hiatt's Post account, are tested every 30 days.
"I can tell you that the first call to MTPD regarding this incident was, in fact, placed by the station manager at Smithsonian," Stessel said by email.
And just how common are assaults on the Metro? No one wants to ride with the fear of getting punched in the face. Last year there was an average of about nine aggravated assaults a month with more than a million people riding the Metro and bus every day. The most common crimes cited are robbery, with an average of about 75 incidents a month, and larceny, with 66. WMATA's five-year crime report lists 108 total aggravated assaults throughout 2011, down from last year but higher than the totals in 2007, 2008, and 2009. But the tally of simple assaults seems much higher, based on the March crime blotter. The arrest of Hiatt's assailant marked the 36th of 38th person arrested or reported for precisely that crime in March 2012, which suggests a simple assault at least once a day on average.