The rate of violent crime on Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) trains and platforms has more than doubled this year, even though the number of riders has dramatically dropped and Chicago police have stepped up patrols and surveillance, according to a Tribune analysis of police and CTA data, Mass Transit Mag reported.
Ridership this year on the “L” system has been down 61% through September compared with the same period in 2019, according to the CTA. In some months during the spring and summer, it was down more than 85%. And while the absolute number of crimes has dropped, too, but not nearly as much as ridership. That means those left riding the system saw a jump in their odds of becoming a victim to a crime on the “L” or at CTA platforms and stations.
From Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, there were roughly 6 violent crimes and 9 nonviolent crimes per 1 million rides on the “L.” The nonviolent crime rate saw a slight uptick, but the violent crime rate has more than doubled from last year, when both types of crime on the CTA rail system reached their highest levels of the decade. Brian Steele, CTA’s vice president of communications, said the level of serious crime is in line with transit agencies nationwide. CTA officials meet and communicate with police regularly “to help prevent and respond to crimes,” he added.
Matthew Cline, the Chicago Police Department’s commander of public transportation, said even though there was a drastic decrease in CTA ridership during the coronavirus pandemic, “the people that are driving the crime never left the system.”
“People that are engaging in crimes and gang members — they’re not observing the stay-at-home order as much as most other folks,” Cline said. “So whereas a lot of the working people left the system, a lot of the criminals that prey on people did not. So that’s where, honestly, some of our crime didn’t decrease at a rate that we would’ve liked to have seen.”
The Tribune analyzed CTA ridership numbers and reports of crimes considered serious enough to report to the FBI as “index” crimes, from pick-pocketing to robbery and sexual assault. Of these, cases deemed violent included robberies, homicides and more aggressive assaults and batteries. The analysis focused on crimes reported in the city of Chicago, which covers the vast majority of the CTA system.
The analysis found that the raw number of crimes on the CTA rail system this year through September was lower than previous years, with police reporting 940 serious crimes, 375 of them violent. That compares with 1,794 serious crimes — 415 of them violent — through September 2019. But with roughly 63 million rides on the “L” this year compared with nearly 165 million during the same period last year, the number of crimes points to a troubling surge in the rate of offenses.
The increase also comes after Chicago police added about 50 officers to CTA trains and platforms this spring, bringing the total number of officers assigned to patrol the “L” to about 200. Police officials also opened a new strategic decision support center in June to monitor video of CTA properties in real time. Cline said there are seven dedicated detectives analyzing live footage of CTA properties, which has been a “game changer” in gathering better evidence and putting cases together. The CTA has about 32,000 cameras on its network, including in every rail station, bus and train car.
But deterring those crimes from happening is another issue. Cline said COVID-19 has complicated police efforts since jails aren’t holding as many people, and many of those committing crimes on the rail system are repeat offenders.
“We’re arresting some people four or five times,” Cline said. “That’s kind of a struggle across the system.”
While the arrest rate for nonviolent crimes has dropped slightly from about 4.8% to 4.1%, the initiatives may have contributed to a higher arrest rate for violent crimes this year. The arrest rate for violent crimes on the “L” through September was about 21.8%, an increase of about 3.2% from the same period last year.
Violent crimes reported on the rail system through September included at least 283 robberies, 53 aggravated cases of battery, 33 serious cases of assault, four homicides and two criminal sexual assaults. Homicide cases had the highest percentage of arrests, with three of the four resulting in at least one arrest.
The rise in the crime rate came as no surprise to Dagan Douglas, 24, a South Side native who rides the Red Line nearly every day to work. On Nov. 27, Douglas was a witness to an argument between two men who didn’t seem to know each other at the Jackson Red Line station in the Loop. The altercation turned violent, and one man tossed the other in front of an oncoming train, seriously injuring him, according to a police report. No arrests have been made, and police have not released any video and photos of the attack or the suspect.
The fight was the most violent Douglas has seen on the CTA, but he said it wasn’t shocking. He said he sees petty crimes regularly on the CTA that “can easily escalate into violence with the wrong reactions.”
“This sort of thing is starting to become increasingly common, so when I see an incident, it doesn’t really register with me all that much,” Douglas said.
Chicago police do not specifically list which crimes occur at or near which stations, and while the department provides addresses and mapping coordinates, they are approximate. Still, the Tribune was able to analyze this data to determine which stations were closest to the reported crimes.
As of Nov, 23, there were about 14 violent crimes this year at the Jackson Red Line station, making the stop one of the most violent in Chicago. It is behind only the Roosevelt station in the South Loop, which had about 22 violent crimes, and the Blue Line’s Pulaski stop in East Garfield Park, which had about 19.
The Red Line’s Chicago stop on the Near North Side had the fourth most violent crimes with about 13, followed by the Howard stop in Rogers Park, the Belmont stop in Lakeview and the 79th station on the Red Line in Chatham, which each had about nine.
Some stations, such as Clark and Lake in the Loop, saw high rates of nonviolent but still serious offenses, such as theft. Though the department places more officers on fixed posts when it notices a spike in crimes, Cline said it’s harder to stop offenses at “massive stations” such as the Jackson Red Line, which has multiple tunnels and platforms spread across one area.
“There’s just a lot of geography to cover, so it does pose challenges,” Cline said. “I’d like to have more officers in some of these spots, but there’s just a lot of crime.”
Cline said the department’s focus this year has been on robberies and violent crimes. He added that the department is making better use of technology, but there’s still work to be done, including on homicide cases and in handling issues involving mental illness on the CTA rail system. “We’re early on this,” Cline said. “Obviously, we like the direction we’re going in. We’re not satisfied yet, and I don’t think we’ll ever fully be satisfied, but we do feel like the approach we’re taking now is the right approach.”