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Do public transit stops attract crime?

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Last week’s fatal stabbing of 68-year-old Bernice Nickson took place at a downtown Regional Transit stop.

While it would be hasty to let one incident determine RT’s entire reputation, the incident does beg the question: Are Regional Transit stops hubs for crime?

Alane Masui, assistant general manager of communications for Sacramento RT, said no. She said that when crimes take place on the street, transit stops are just easy landmarks to associate with the incident.

“It’s more of a perception than a reality,” she said. “When something occurs, people try to put the incident in context, and transit stops serve as regional landmarks.”

There are about 3,800 bus stops and 47 light rail stations in the Sacramento area. Masui’s point is that RT is all over the city, meaning it’s nearly impossible to draw a line determining where a “transit area” ends and a “non-transit area” begins. So a comparison of safety rates can’t really happen. It’s left to perception, not hard data.

Sgt. Norm Leong of the Sacramento Police Department said transit stops do attract crime, but he stopped short of singling them out as a problem.

“When you have people out walking, it creates a vulnerability,” he said. “But it’s no different than a nightclub closing or a concert getting out.”

He said there is an added danger now that so many people wear headphones in public, essentially putting their $200 smart phones on display for potential criminals to steal.

But Leong said criminals are foolish to break the law at RT stops because the stops have high-quality surveillance cameras. Bernice Nickson’s death was solved thanks in part to one such camera, which provided detectives a general description of the killer and his initial direction of travel after the stabbing.

Still, some riders believe crime is higher at bus and light rail stops. Daniel, a 23-year-old who declined to give his last name, is one of them.

“It’s the streets,” he said, sitting on his bike at the Eighth Street and O Street light rail stop. “I’ve seen people get jumped. At Power Inn I saw someone get his head beat in with a bat. And no one came for a while.”

"It’s only at some stops," added Ashley, also 23, who said it has more to do with neighborhood than anything else. 

"I’m comfortable," said 55-year-old Suzy Bonin, in reference to public transit as a whole. "At night … it can get iffy." 

Bonin says she might think twice before letting her teenage grandson ride alone, however. 

According to a performance report on SacRT.com, there were 42 crimes on RT in January, which is about average for the past year. Those are felonies and misdemeanors, not minor infractions. RT’s worst month last year was March, with 74, and its best was December, with 36. The number of crimes January is down 11 from last year’s January total of 53.

Roger Dickinson, who is on the RT board of directors, agreed with Masui. He said transit stops are unfairly used as reference points for crimes that may actually have nothing to do with public transit.

“If someone gets stabbed a block away from a light rail station, the media still refers to the station,” he says. “Even if it had nothing to do with the genesis of the crime.”

So, are the stops dangerous?

Regional Transit said no — it’s just perception. The Police said yes, but no more so than a nightclub or a concert. But at least RT stops have surveillance.

Leong said the whole discussion triggers a certain level of paranoia. But RT is still the best option for many commuters, and its shortcomings are just the price riders pay for the convenience of light rail and buses.

“What’s the alternative?" Leong said. "Don’t walk anywhere?”

– Photos by Brandon Darnell

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