Sound Transit: Watch Out for Phone Snatchers

By Erica C. Barnett February 3, 2012

Sound Transit just put out an alert to riders to be extra-cautious when getting on and off light rail, in response to at least ten incidents in which teenagers ran up to the victims and grabbed their phones or other electronics while they were getting on or off the train. Most of the incidents happened in the Rainier Valley.

Although police have arrested three suspects in the robberies, Sound Transit says riders should be extra-careful when getting on or off trains---basically, don't stand around outside train doors with your computer in your hand because someone might snatch it. "These expensive compact devices have become a favorite target of opportunistic thieves who take advantage of riders who aren’t paying attention to their surroundings," Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray said in a statement.

"We saw a spike" in phone thefts "in January," and that, combined with people being concerned about what's going on with crime in the Rainier Valley" prompted Sound Transit to put out the alert, Gray told PubliCola.

In related news, Mayor Mike McGinn and new council public safety chair Bruce Harrell plan to attend Monday night's public safety town hall at the Lakewood Community Center in Seward Park to address neighborhood concerns about violence and property crime.

And the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council, with encouragement from the Rainier Valley Post, has been organizing walks to "take back the streets" of Southeast Seattle from criminals. (There's one scheduled for tonight.)

But is all this hand-wringing warranted? After all, January's spike in thefts at light rail stations---and Gray does acknowledge it was "a spike"---comes on the heels of months with few or no similar thefts. Gray says there were two such thefts in March, one in April, and one in November. Hardly a reason to start lighting the torches and hoisting the pitchforks. And I say this as someone who had her laptop stolen in the Rainier Valley, though not along the light-rail route.

Security on light rail, which Gray mentions in his press release, is much more visible than that on Metro---as anyone who has ridden the train, with its security cameras on all station platforms and frequent visits from King County deputies and private security officers, knows. (Metro, which has many more buses and stops than light rail, simply can't put a transit police officer on every potentially problematic bus or add a security camera at every bus stop. Instead, they invest heavily in patrol officers who can travel quickly to the site of any incident).

As for Metro, spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok says Metro staffers say there hasn't been a spike in electronics thefts, adding that a recent KOMO report raising alarm about 700 instances of "violent behavior" on Metro's "worst three routes" last year" (sample line: "data shows that there are a handful of routes were riders have every right to feel  nervous") is simply wrong. That number---the total number of incidents reported on the Routes 358, 7, and the Seattle-Tukwila RapidRide---includes "every kind of incident, from sleepers"---people sleeping on the bus---to spitting to assaults.

In general, Ogershok repeats Sound Transit's advice: Keep an eye on your surroundings, don't set electronic devices down in a public place where someone could snatch them, and keep a firm grip on your phone, tablet, or computer.

Meanwhile, SPD doesn't keep stats on crimes committed on or in proximity to transit, but a scan of police reports since the beginning of last year shows only a handful of reported assaults on bus routes in the Rainier Valley.
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