BART safety concerns: Transit agency reports 3 homicides in 1 week

The murder of teenager Nia Wilson is intensifying questions about BART safety. For years, riders have complained the transit force is space and its response, slow. 

The fact that suspect John Cowell was blatantly riding trains when arrested and was spotted by a passenger, not police, has also drawn criticism. 

"I feel the weekends are very vulnerable for people, " BART commuter Soma Bulusu told KTVU, showing his BART Watch App on his phone, which he has used to report disturbances and crimes while riding. 

Usually, he said, by the time they arrive, the perpetrator has already stepped off the train.  
"People feel that a response is on the way, and if they can count on some response, that will make them feel secure," said Bulusu.  

Riders describe two BARTS: during commute hours when they feel safety in numbers and the off-peak or night runs that seem riskier.    

BART can be a picture of boredom, until something or someone changes the ride.  

"Someone pulled a knife out, but they ran off," said commuter Michael Montalvo, recounting robberies and beatings he has witnessed. 

"I always make sure that I sit in the corner where I know i can visually see everyone in the car," said Montalvo. 

He also makes a quick exit when his intuition senses trouble.   

"Even it adds another fifteen minutes, waiting for the next train, if it's my safety, I get off." 

BART's police chief says transit violence is a reflection of societal violence. 

"We're just a microcosm of all the cities where we sit, and no city we pass through is crime free," said

Chief Carlos Rojas, speaking to reporters after Cowell's arrest Monday. 

Rojas also suggested no number of additional cops could stop a killing like Nia Wilson's because is was so sudden and unprovoked.    

"Other than them being right next to where the incident occurred, I'm not sure it could have been prevented," said Rojas.

Still BART has 35 officers in the hiring process, ten new officers in field training, and vacancies for 25 more.  

"We definitely take crimes against people as our top priority," said Deputy Chief Ed Alvarez on Tuesday, noting the last homicide on BART was two years ago, and describing BART's crime rate as comparable to other mass transit systems.

Alvarez explains, when officers are slow to arrive or don't show, it's because they must prioritize calls, and are stretched thin.

At any one time, 35 officers are on duty, covering the entire system.  

"Our marching orders to our patrol officers are to get out of the car and walk the stations," said Alvarez, "and be visible to prevent the assaults and the fights and things like that." 

Many commuters have stories about transient or mentally unstable passengers harassing riders. 

"This man got on and started throwing his Thanksgiving leftovers at people," said Christina Lau, describing a particularly traumatic encounter that lasted from the Dublin to Lake Merritt stations. 

"He was pushing people around, shoving people, and then he sat right behind me," recounted Lau, "and he pushed my shoulder hard, and it went from there, it's not safe." 

Now, with Nia Wilson's tragic death, what has been a frustrating environment, is a more frightening one, especially for young women who can relate to the Wilson sisters. 

"I'm scared, I look over my shoulder now when I'm riding BART," said 24-year-old Maureshia Barrow of Hayward, waiting for a train with sister Kayla. 

"I'm in my twenties, and my sister is 18, so it's just scary."  

BART officers are required to ride trains within their patrol area four times during each shift, to maintain visibility.