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New figures show that Chicago public transit system is safer

Recent report shows that crime has decreased on Chicago's Transportation System
Recent report shows that crime has decreased on Chicago's Transportation SystemPhoto by Brian Kersey/Getty Images

Last week the Chicago Transportation Authority (CTA) released figures on crime on the nation’s second largest transportation system, and concluded that crime was down from 2013 --- and according to the Chicago Tribune – specifically thefts and robberies, which “fell by about one-fifth and one-third, respectively, in the first half of the year compared with the same period in 2013, according to data that transit officials released.”

The occurrences on “CTA buses, trains and on rail station platforms in the first six months of the years 2011-14, follows a July 16 attack on an Orange Line train in which two armed men robbed at least four passengers of cash and electronic items, and pistol-whipped a rider who wouldn't give up her purse.”

Just recently two men were arrested for the crime which took place in full daylight, on a line that has a direct connection to Midway Airport.

CTA officials attribute the decline to the presence of 23,000 cameras spread across the area, and that make catching criminals much easier than in the past.

"There are a number of factors that can affect crime levels, but regardless of how you look at the numbers, it’s clear that progress is being made," CTA President Forrest Claypool said in a release,” according to the Chicago RedEye, a local sister publication of the Tribune.

“Violent crimes on the CTA declined more than 34 percent from January through June compared with the first half of last year, according to the CTA,” was also reported.

Whether this is a cyclical pattern that gives no clear role for improvement, or not, or whether the presence of the cameras and undercover policeman, are deterrents remain to be seen.

But conversations across the city’s dinner tables and at the workplace still – despite these figures, crime on CTA trains, busses, and platforms, make many Chicagoans uneasy, and many are taking to arming themselves with knives, hidden guns, or even improvised weapons to protect themselves, a move that many law enforcement officials do not recommend.

In March of last year, the Chicago Sun-Times said “Even with $26 million in high-resolution cameras finally in full force last year, reported crime at CTA rail stations rose 21 percent.”

Much like this recent data, they noted “the good news is that while overall crime is up, violent crime is down 30 percent. And when all reported crime is counted, Chicago is close to achieving swift arrests in two of every three station crimes.”

While fare evasion has been a much-heralded improvement and something that Chicago Police Superintend Garry McCarthy is proud of, and that police spokesman, Nancy Lipman noted at the time, when she said, “He contends catching turnstile-jumpers often equates to stopping criminals before they escalate to more serious crimes inside stations,” it still does not help those that pay a fare with the intent of committing serious crime on the system.

One local man, a resident of the Edgewater neighborhood, who asked that we not use his name, noted that he simply does “not feel safe on the CTA, after all with all these cameras, the crimes still happen,” and that he recommends visitors take cabs and avoid the CTA, entirely, especially the trains.

Late evenings, and early mornings, when many of the crimes occur, there is the visible presence of K-9 units on the trains, with crime dogs, but their preoccupation seems to be intent on the homeless, who ride (and sleep on the system all night), pay a fare when they reach the northern and southern terminus, at 95th Street and Howard, than crime prevention.

“A Chicago man was accused of threatening two CTA employees at separate Red Line stations after he was arrested at the Grand Avenue station for shouting death threats at a K-9 unit,” noted the Chicago RedEye.

Less than eight months ago, local NBC affiliate Channel 5, reported the following on their website: “Only one out of four violent crimes reported on Chicago's rapid-transit system ends in an arrest by the Chicago Police Department, NBC5 Investigates has found in a month-long investigation. What's more, that rate has not improved in recent years, despite the Chicago Transit Authority's much-publicized installation and expansion of a $26 million network of 3,600 surveillance cameras on rail cars and platforms system-wide.”

If the truth lies somewhere between the two poles, then it is seen in some of the comments that we solicited.

“I ride CTA buses and subways daily, for the most part on the North side and downtown, and occasionally use PACE and METRA, and I generally feel safe, and admire the drivers for their handling of all sorts of unforeseen circumstances as they arise,” noted Rogers Park resident Florence Thompson.

“On the other hand, overall violent crime on Chicago's "El" has decreased in the past two years, giving credence to the CTA's position that the cameras can act - at very least - as a deterrent to violence on Chicago's rapid transit system,” they also said.

But, West Ridge resident, Lee Strausberg, told us that in his early morning commute to Bridgeport, “I feel safe on CTA only because I feel safe with me. If a situation seems odd I move. If I'm confronted I protect myself. No one cares about your personal safety more than you do. Use that to your advantage.”

With a 68 percent spike in thefts, attributable to the sheer volume of hand-held electronic devices, from cell phones to I-Pads, “it's quite possible a double-digit rise in thefts could be considered positive if it is lower than the increase in gadgets overall,” noted Channel 5.

The station’s investigative unit also noted, “It’s very unlikely you'll ever get it back -- or that the thief will be arrested. NBC5 Investigates found that - according to the Chicago police report statistics - the arrest rate for thefts is miniscule: Last year only three percent of CTA thefts resulted in an arrest - down from five percent in 2012.”

By comparison The New York subway system claims low rates of crime and the New York Daily News reported on its website in June that, “Transit Bureau Chief Joseph Fox said the number of major felonies systemwide have dropped so low — an average 5.9 a day this year — that it’s a big challenge to get the figure even lower.”

“The fact that you can go in any car and any station and see people holding electronic devices in their hand is a reflection of how safe people feel,” Fox also said.

Run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York system has “468 stations in operation” and “is also one of the world's oldest public transit systems.”

“In 2013, the subway delivered over 1.71 billion rides, averaging approximately 5.5 million rides on weekdays, about 3.2 million rides on Saturdays, and about 2.6 million rides on Sundays. Ridership has been consistently increasing over the last several years, especially because of rising gas prices and the subway's energy efficiency,” according to Wikipedia.

“It’s extraordinarily safe, compared to what crime was in the ’90s, the ’70s and the ’80s,” Police Commissioner Bill Bratton told The News, speaking of the subway system in general. “I think we’re in very good shape, and in position to get in even better shape going forward.”

In late May, the Red Eye, said that “Electronics thefts on the CTA were down 36 percent for the first three months of this year, according to Chicago police data released last week. There were 228 reported thefts of iPhones, cellphones and computers from January through March, compared to 355 thefts during the same period last year, police said.”

According to the CTA website” “On an average weekday, 1.7 million rides are taken on CTA,” and “serves 35 suburbs, in addition to the City of Chicago, and provides 83 percent of the public transit trips in the six-county Chicago metropolitan area.”

However, ridership is also down, nearly “3.4 percent systemwide” from January through April of this year, according to the report provided by the CTA.

Spokesperson Tammy Chase denied that the decrease in ridership had any relation to the crime reduction, and said, there is “no evidence that ridership is a factor.”

Twitter @dgrantchi