Crime rises on trains and buses in LA as COVID eases

While waiting for a subway train in Hollywood, Maritza Mancilla sheltered behind the escalator bringing passengers into the subway lit by fluorescent lamps.

She wanted to see the newcomers before they could see her.

The 55-year-old woman, who uses public transport to get to her job as a cleaner, has seen fights break out on the train. She saw a man attempting to open the car doors while they were in motion. At the Hollywood / Western subway station earlier this year, a man exposed himself to her.

“If I could work from home I would,” she said.

With the pandemic easing and lockdowns lifting, a return to normalcy has come with benefits: increased economic activity, more people returning to work, school and vacation gatherings, and social interactions.

But on the Los Angeles transit system – where ridership has rebounded to around 843,000 daily weekday riders from a pandemic low of around 363,800 – normal has also led to an increase in crime.

In 2021, through September, reports of violent crime rose 25% from the same period last year and 9% from 2019, according to data from the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Some crimes, such as aggravated assault, are exceeding pre-pandemic levels, although bus and train ridership has not fully recovered.

Although still rare, homicides have dropped from one in 2019 to three in 2020, the first full year of the pandemic. So far in 2021, five people have been killed in train stations or on public transport, including a 28-year-old woman shot dead on the train on her way to work.

While most people use public transportation without incident, the issue of crime recently sparked a clash between LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Metro board members over the future of the city. system law enforcement. At a press conference to argue for extending his department’s contract with Metro, the sheriff drew up a list of eight violent crimes, dating back to 2019, including shootings, stabbing and sexual assault . He called the incidents a “level of carnage” occurring in the trains.

Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts, who sits on Metro’s board of directors, said he viewed Villanueva’s compilation of violent crimes “as a public acknowledgment that he failed to prevent. these crimes “.

Butts, a former Santa Monica police chief, added that given the massive scale of the transit system, there was no point in trying to scare people off with crime numbers. .

“The press conference was a political exercise that gave statistics without perspective,” Butts said at a Metro committee meeting. “Considering the millions of passengers that Metro serves each year, the crime statistics per capita compared to cities are de minimis.”

Commuters ride an escalator to street level at the North Hollywood station on the Subway Red Line on Tuesday, November 16, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

On a recent Friday morning, more than a dozen people on their way to work, school or shopping waited for their train at Hollywood / Western station.

Maria Herrera had just finished an eight-hour night shift. The 55-year-old, who can’t drive, relies on her daughters and public transport to get to work five days a week.

Herrera said she quit taking the overnight train a long time ago and relied on ridesharing apps, which are coming at an increasing cost.

“The poor suffer the most,” Herrera said. But when it comes to crime, she said, “we are all at risk.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re older or younger,” she said. “That’s why a lot of people keep using their cars. “

Security guards in neon yellow vests walk through Union Station

Security guards walk through Union Station on November 16.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

This year, up to September, there were 470 violent crimes system-wide. In 2020, over the same period, there were 375. In 2019, before the start of the pandemic, there were 432.

Thefts fell from the last two years to 165, but reports of homicides, rapes, aggravated assaults and aggravated assaults against operators were higher this year than the same period in 2019 and 2020.

Judy Gerhardt, head of systems security and law enforcement at Metro, said the rise in crime appears to be part of a larger trend across the United States.

“As our community grapples with the challenges posed by COVID, the increase in the homeless population on the system, other social factors that are occurring now, we are seeing crime rates increase – not just on the system but locally. and even across the country, ”said Gerhardt. “Our goal is to minimize all crimes on the system at all levels. “

There have been five homicides this year, the most recent having taken place on November 21, when a man was shot in the head at the Willowbrook / Rosa Parks subway station. The suspects of all the murders are in custody.

Danielle Harlemon

Danielle Harlemon, 28, was shot and killed while taking the train to work on October 10.

(Eddie Harlemon III)

For Danielle Harlemon’s family, her death was as unexpected as it was far from the place she once called her home.

The 28-year-old realized her dream of moving from Atlanta to California two years ago. Her older sister said she loved the ocean.

Almost every day, Harlemon would wake up before sunrise to make it to the downtown LA marijuana dispensary on time where she worked as a master grower.

Her mother, Demetria, has said on a few occasions that she heard her daughter being harassed at the train station during their daily calls.

“I asked him, ‘Where is the security? How does all this work on public transport? ‘ », Remembers Demetria, 54 years old. “Why is there no one to comfort you?” “

Harlemon wanted to start driving and was saving up to buy a Jeep by Christmas.

On October 10, Harlemon was sitting on the B-line subway train, when a restless man started pacing nearby. He started arguing with her. When the train stopped at the Hollywood / Vine station, the man shot Harlemon and fled, police said. She died in a nearby hospital.

“It breaks me every day that she commutes to work,” Demetria said. “That this was happening just put me in a state of shock. “

Less than a month later, police arrested Andre Dunlap, 23, who had fled to his home state of Indiana. Dunlap, who was not housed at the time of the shooting, was on parole for attempted robbery in Los Angeles, according to the LAPD. He has since been charged with murder.

Villanueva cited Harlemon’s death during the November 17 press conference. He criticized Metro’s public safety advisory committee for recommending a shift to non-police alternatives, such as public transport ambassadors, which he said would give “an illusion of safety.”

“We need to take these issues seriously because lives are at stake, lives are at risk on the system and the total disregard for passenger safety is alarming,” Villanueva said.

Since 2017, Metro has divided police duties between the Los Angeles Police Department, which patrols buses, trains and stations in the city of LA; Long Beach Police, who work at eight Blue Line stations; and the LA County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols the rest of the system. The contracts expire in 2022.

In the wake of the protests over the murder of George Floyd, Metro’s board of directors called for recommendations on how to reform the agency’s policing practices and reallocate resources to other forms of community safety , which resulted in the creation of an advisory committee on public safety.

The committee recommended that the board of directors not allocate any additional funding to existing police contracts of public agencies and reallocate this money to support mental health, homeless outreach services and public transport ambassadors. unarmed who can defuse potentially violent situations.

Villanueva “underlined the crimes and the people feeling in danger during public transport. Contracts have exploded over the years and we don’t think the transit system feels any safer, ”said Scarlett De Leon, committee member. “For PSAC members, and for myself it’s like, what else can we do that really deals with safety at the root? “

Metro recommended that the board approve funding for the remaining six months of law enforcement contracts, for a total of $ 75.2 million, and authorize an extension of up to one year . In a statement, the agency said it would give the Public Safety Advisory Committee “enough time to finalize its long-term recommendations.”

Metro board members criticized Villanueva at an operations, security and customer experience committee meeting last Thursday.

“The head of an agency responsible for ensuring public safety on this system held a press conference and tried to frighten and frighten users of our system … tried to cause panic,” said the LA city councilor Mike Bonin, committee chair. “We have an agency run by a guy who didn’t provide public safety, who didn’t handle the contract well and then wants more money. “

On December 2, the board will vote on whether to fund the remaining six months and extend the contracts.

Metro users on the red metro line on November 16

Metro users take the metro red line on November 16.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

At Hollywood / Western Station, Richard Diamond waited to board a train bound for North Hollywood. Diamond, who lives in Glendale, takes public transportation every month to her doctor’s appointments in Encino.

Regarding the police presence, he hastens to say that it should be “reduced”.

“They are only there to give you a ticket and harass you. They are not there for security reasons per se, ”said Diamond, who is black. “When do you really see them dealing with a problem other than giving away a ticket or worrying if you’ve paid for your ticket? It’s more about the harassment than doing anything I’ve seen help.

The 47-year-old said he wasn’t worried about taking the train. When he was homeless for a decade, he would take her to North Hollywood, come back downstairs and then head to Long Beach. But he “always slept with one eye open.”

“You are never really safe, especially in the big cities,” Diamond said. “But, in general, people look out for each other whether you realize it or not.”

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