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Running crime out of town on a rail: Chicago must curb violence on the CTA

Putting more cops on the L is only part of the solution.

Crime scene tape hangs on the railing at the entrance of the Blue Line’s Jackson station after a man was killed and two other people were wounded in a shooting in the underground pedestrian tunnel overnight, Monday morning, Feb. 17, 2020. The shooting happened in the tunnel connecting the Jackson Red and Blue lines in the 200 block of South Dearborn.
Crime scene tape hangs on the railing at the entrance of the Blue Line’s Jackson station after a man was killed and two other people were wounded in a shooting in the underground pedestrian tunnel on Feb. 17, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As Chicago struggles with a jump in violent crime on L and subway trains and stations, it’s good to see Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Interim Police Supt. Charlie Beck fighting back.

On Friday, the mayor and Beck are expected to announce a beefed-up CTA security plan.

Putting more cops on the L, which the city already has begun doing, holds the promise of driving down crime, as has been the case with other big city mass transit systems. But it’s only part of the solution. The CTA must do a better job, as well, of keeping up with the maintenance basics of mass transit — such as keeping stations clean and well-lit — which other cities have learned plays a big part in making a ride safer.

Chicago Police officials say the plan to be rolled out Friday will include significantly increasing police presence on trains and L stations — adding investigators as well as patrol officers. Images from CTA cameras will be relayed faster to CPD’s tech-heavy Strategic Decision Support Centers in hopes of catching offenders quicker.

And Beck already has taken the remarkable step of deploying SWAT officers — dressed in their green uniforms, but not in tactical gear and long guns — on the transit system.

Upswing in CTA crime

All of this can’t come soon enough. Last week, a Park Manor neighborhood man, Torrez Cathery, 23, was charged with killing Edward Charleston, 24, in the pedestrian tunnel that connects the CTA’s Red and Blue Line stations at Jackson Street. Two other CTA riders were wounded in the shooting. Earlier this month, a man was shot in an attempted robbery on the UIC/Halsted stop on the Blue Line.

Public transit is the lifeblood of Chicago, moving 1.6 million people across the region and into the downtown core each working day. That’s a mobile metropolis, a population equal in size to that of Philadelphia. But the CTA is struggling to cope with a three-year upswing in serious crime.

Back in September, a Chicago Tribune analysis revealed that reports of serious crimes on the CTA rail system had doubled since 2015 — even as ridership had declined and crime rates elsewhere in the city remained relatively flat. At the same time, arrest rates for serious crimes on the CTA had dropped.

Last month, Lightfoot said she was “alarmed” by the increase in CTA crime and vowed that “we’re gonna fundamentally turn that around.”

Los Angeles as a model

Other cities, including Beck’s home city of Los Angeles, are tackling the same problem of mass transit crime and finding success. Crime is down 17 percent over the past five years across the Los Angeles Metro’s sprawling bus and rail system, according to stats released by the agency this month.

L.A.’s Metro said robbery and assault have fallen 23 percent since 2015. Less serious crimes were down 11 percent.

What’s worked? Los Angeles transit officials point to the 2017 implementation of a multi-agency policing plan that brought in officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles Police Department, Long Beach Police Department, private security companies and the agency’s own police, including uniformed fare compliance officers.

And Metro is also improving the lighting and layout of its stations — a passive, but important tool in making transit systems safer. CTA station upkeep is far better than it has been in decades, but we’d like to see the agency redouble its efforts here.

“It’s about making stations less intimidating to occasional users,” MarySue Barrett, president of Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council, told us. “More people on the platforms and on bus stops are a deterrent. Safety is not separate from improved service. It’s all together.”

Crime “driven underground”

The irony in Chicago is that crime has been rising on mass transit even as violent crime in the city as a whole has been on the decline. “Maybe the crime is being driven underground [to the L system],” one police official told us. “We don’t know.”

The CTA remains relatively safe — that should be emphasized. In 2018, the CTA recorded just 1 crime for every 95,000 L rides. But that’s not necessarily sufficiently reassuring to a rider standing on a State Street subway platform at 2 a.m. And perceptions matter.

Violent crime can have no home on the CTA.

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