The year 2005 saw a significant increase in arrests and incidents for the San Diego Trolley system. According to a report obtained from the Metropolitan Transit System, the agency that runs the trolley, serious crimes, termed "Part I incidents" -- homicide, rape, robbery, theft, aggravated assault, motor vehicle theft, burglary, and arson -- in trolley cars and stations rose from 84 in 2004 to 138 in 2005, a 64 percent increase.
During that same time, "Part II arrests" -- for vandalism, sex offenses, drug abuse violations, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and curfew and loitering violations -- rose from 1438 in 2004 to 1776 in 2005, a jump of 23.5 percent. But trolley officials say these figures are misleading. That's because "Ridership increased quite a bit in 2005," explains Luis Gonzalez, media communications specialist for the Metropolitan Transit System.
Gonzalez is right about trolley ridership. According to the report, the number of passengers rose 11.7 percent, from 28,772,441 in 2004 to 32,132,530 in 2005. "That's a significant increase in riders," Gonzalez says, "so even with the increase in arrests, our ratio" -- arrests per 100,000 passengers -- "was ridiculously low."
That must be small consolation to the 20-year-old woman who, on April 16, 2005, at 9:25 p.m., was followed off a trolley at the Fenton Parkway station in east Mission Valley by a man described as Latino, around five feet eight inches, and 200 pounds. The man threatened her with a gun, then forced her into some bushes where he beat her with the gun and his fists before raping and robbing her.
Part II arrests per 100,000 passengers rose from 5.0 in 2004 to 5.53 in 2005, a 10.6 percent increase. A bigger cause for alarm is the spike in the more serious Part I incidents during 2005. In 2004, there were .29 per 100,000. In 2005, the ratio jumped to .43, an increase of 48.3 percent. But a comparison of San Diego's statistics with those of the light-rail system in Los Angeles supports Gonzalez's claim of a "ridiculously low" crime rate on the San Diego Trolley. While San Diego's rate of serious incidents per 100,000 passengers is .43, in Los Angeles the rate is 1.96, more than four times higher.
According to the Metropolitan Transit System's annual report, the rape at the Fenton Parkway station was the only rape in 2004 and 2005. But robberies on the trolley and at its stations more than doubled, going from 17 in 2004 to 37 in 2005. Car theft in the trolley stations did not increase dramatically. There were 18 in 2004, 19 in 2005. Other thefts, including auto burglaries, vehicle tampering, and purse grabbing, increased 73 percent, from 37 to 64. One such incident happened at the Grossmont trolley station on Fletcher Parkway in La Mesa on August 23, 2005. Two women, aged 78 and 75, were sitting on a bench at the station when a 19-year-old man and two 17-year-old boys walked up. One of the teenagers grabbed one woman's purse, hurling her to the ground in the process. Another tugged so hard on the second woman's purse that he pulled her up and over the back of the bench. A trolley employee, who saw the three teens sprint up a long staircase toward Grossmont Center mall, gave a description of them to police. Within the hour, an El Cajon officer saw the 17-year-olds exit a bus and get straight into a taxi at a bus stop on Marshall Avenue in El Cajon. Police stopped the cab -- the 19-year-old had already been in it -- and arrested the three. The two ladies were treated at the Grossmont station for scrapes and bruises but were not hospitalized.
Aggravated assaults went up by 4, from 11 in 2004 to 15 in 2005. One of those, but for bad aim, could have been a homicide. The night of June 4, 2005, an argument between two men at the trolley station at Market Street and Park Boulevard in the East Village ended when one of the combatants shot the other twice. The resultant wounds weren't life-threatening.
Two thousand four and 2005 each saw one homicide on the trolley system. Two thousand five's killing happened late on December 1, when 16-year-old Lemon Grove resident Darnell Bonds was shot at the Spring Street trolley station in La Mesa. When police found him at the station around 11:30 p.m., he was unconscious and bleeding from a bullet wound in his head. Bonds died later at the hospital.
The first half of 2006 has seen a couple of shootings in or near trolley stations. On January 18, around 7:45 p.m., 17-year-old Keuane Kirksey and a friend were standing on Imperial Avenue near 32nd Street in Logan Heights when a car full of teenaged gang members pulled up. After words were exchanged, one of them opened fire on Kirksey and his friend. Both, though hit, ran to a trolley station less than a block away, where Kirksey died. His friend survived.
On the night of February 28, an off-duty police detective happened to be at the Iris Avenue trolley station in Otay Mesa when he heard a gunshot. As the shooter and a few cohorts drove away, the detective followed until he lost them on Interstate 805. Investigators found blood drops and a shell casing at the station. Later, they found a man nearby who had a head wound from being hit with a bottle. Police weren't sure whether he had been the intended recipient of the gunshot.
Reports of such incidents, Gonzalez believes, unfairly bring the trolley a bad reputation. "A guy on the street gets shot," he says, "ends up coming to our station, and dies there, and then all of a sudden, everyone's saying, 'The trolley is unsafe.' "
On the contrary, Gonzalez says, the trolley "is a really safe way to travel. I think there's a misconception that people have about the trolley. They hear things on the news -- 'An accident occurred near the trolley station' -- and it had nothing to do with the trolley. It is just unfortunate that we get all that publicity when something happens on or near our tracks. They assume that it was because of the trolley. And that is an issue that we need to try to change people's minds on."
Gonzalez says trolley riders should be reassured to know that over 50 security officers -- some armed, some unarmed -- are riding the trolleys and patrolling the trolley stations at any given time that the trolleys are in operation. "And much of the time it's a lot more than that," he explains. "If you go to one of the trolley stations, you're likely going to have a security or code-compliance officer there, and they are usually at every station as best as they can be. In order for you to be on our premises or around our station, you have to have a ticket. You can't just sit there and linger. So these security officers, they go around checking to make sure that before someone gets on, they have a ticket, or if they are sitting at the station, that they have a ticket in their possession. Once on the trolley, the officers go through the trolley checking people to make sure that they have tickets."
According to the annual report, one category of crime on the trolley fell last year. In 2005, trolley security officers performed 10,449,124 "passenger inspections" to make sure riders weren't evading their fares. "Fare-evasion arrests" declined from 23,193 in 2004 to 20,317 in 2005.