Why is violent crime on BART on the rise? 2 Investigates looks beyond stats

While violent crime on similar transit agencies are down, crime statistics show it is up and on the rise on Bay Area Rapid Transit. 

According to BART Uniform Crime Reporting* data, violent crime increased 57 percent between 2013 and 2017. According to data released in June, by the end of 2018, it’s expected to be the highest it’s been since 2013. 

Robberies make up the majority of the reported crimes and, in its category alone, are up nearly 40 percent since 2013. Cell phone thefts are defined as robberies. 

For comparison, violent crime during that same time frame for Metro in Washington D.C. was down 29 percent. SEPTA in the Philadelphia-area saw a 22 percent decrease. Violent crime on MARTA in Atlanta increased, but not as drastically. MARTA saw a 24 percent jump. 

Daniel Mendez was robbed last year on an SFO-bound train and says he’ll never ride BART again.

“He was standing in front of me just looking, and I could see his gun in his jacket,” Mendez recalled. “I was surrounded. They took everything. There was nothing you could do...They’re doing that because there’s no police presence.”

Crime statistics don’t tell the whole story, said BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas in an interview with 2 Investigates. 

“I think you just have to be careful comparing data because it’s not really apple to apples,” he said.

Polly Hansen with the American Public Transportation Association agreed.

“Transit is very safe. When you have low numbers, a slight increase will look like a large percentage,” she said. “Transit doesn’t operate in isolation. It’s going through, above and around communities and you really have to analyze crime in those communities to look at the crime you’re having. 

Increased ridership is a factor for BART

Unlike ridership on Metro, SEPTA and MARTA, which has all declined since 2013, BART’s ridership is up when looking at that time frame.

In fiscal year 2013, BART’s annual exits were 117,815,050. In fiscal year 2018, it’s 120,554,337. 

According to Hansen, it’s generally understood in the transit industry that the more riders there are the more opportunities exist for crime. 

“We have over 420,000 riders on our system on any given day, and we all know they can get crowded, and an opportunity for individuals to commit crime,” said Rojas.

Police staffing hasn’t keep up with BART’s expansion

“If I can really convey what I might wish for, it’d be really that overtime as the [BART] system expanded, staffing would’ve kept up with expansion,” said Rojas. 

2 Investigates sent every BART Board Director a quick survey to see what they believe contributes to the rise in violent crime on BART. Director Debora Allen was the only one to submit a response. 

“The understaffing of our police force is the biggest factor if we are looking at BART in a silo,” she wrote. “There are many other societal things going on that contribute as well, like lack of mental health help, recent reductions in sentencing of the less violent crime.”

This year, BART had the University of North Texas conduct a deployment study to look into how many more police officer the agency needs to properly police its transit system. Researcher founds BART needs roughly 19-20 additional officers each fiscal year over the next 5 years. 

The additional officers would help with both responding and deterring criminal activity, the report concluded. 

But can BART hire that many more officers in that time frame?

“I can tell you this year we’ve added 23 officers, and so I think it’s definitely doable,” Rojas responded. “We do have some challenges completing the backgrounds with the limited resources we have.”

Is San Francisco an outlier skewing the numbers?

Rojas said BART has seen a downward crime trend in most of the counties the transit agency serves, but crime in San Francisco is skewing the numbers.

However, when 2 Investigates checked our team found violent crime in San Francisco went down from 7,064 reports in 2013 to 6,334 in 2017.

“That challenge becomes even more difficult when it comes to comparing the crime rate of a transit agency to municipalities,” Rojas responded in an e-mail after the interview. “Based on the number [2 Investigates] shared, San Francisco and Oakland combined had more than 12,000 violent crimes in 2017 while BART had 419...Many of the incidents on BART are cellphone thefts that involve a minimal use of force or fear but still qualify as a violent crime by our reporting standards.” 

Is criminal justice reform a factor?

The answer to this question is disputed between law enforcement and academics. According to Rojas, California’s criminal justice reform is a significant factor to crime numbers. 

“There’s been a lot of [criminal justice reform] over the last 5 years here in California,” he said. “And I know there are arguments on either side of the issues.”

UC Irvine criminology professor Charis Kubrin said numerous academic studies prove otherwise. Kubrin oversaw the first independent research of the impact of Assembly Bill 109. AB 109 was the early release of low-level offenders to relieve the state’s overcrowded prisons. She also recently completed another study on the impact of Prop 47, which reduced non-violent drug and petty theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

“None of these reforms had any impact on violent crime throughout the state,” she concluded citing her research and others.

Kubris said her research is a look at the whole state and not specific jurisdictions. 

So, what is behind the increased violent crime? 

There is no one factor. Rather, a confluence of contributors have caused the increased violent crime on BART. Kubrin said a broader issue may also be problems with police-community relations.

“What we know about as neighborhood researchers is when the collaboration between police and the community breaks down, crime rates do go up,” she said.

BART-community relations shattered in 2009 with the shooting death of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer. The incident sparked violent riots and prompted the implementation of an independent police auditor and citizens review board.

Although it’s been years, more problems pepper the community’s healing process. They include drug paraphernalia found on seats, homelessness on BART and rampant fare evasion. 

These are not all problems BART is responsible for, but could still suffer from. 

“With the way the world is today, anyone could walk there with anything...you wouldn’t even know,” Mendez said.

*Violent crimes is defined by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) as robberies, rapes, homicides and aggravated assaults.

Candice Nguyen is an investigative reporter for KTVU Fox 2. Send story and investigation tips to candice.nguyen@foxtv.com.