Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Some months ago, James Q Wilson speculated in a WSJ op-ed on some of the reasons that reported crime in the U.S. is down.  On his list was this one:
Another possible reason for reduced crime is that potential victims may have become better at protecting themselves by equipping their homes with burglar alarms, putting extra locks on their cars and moving into safer buildings or even safer neighborhoods. We have only the faintest idea, however, about how common these trends are or what effects on crime they may have.
In the last few days, there has been a murder on LA's Red Line subway and a stabbing on the Gold Line light rail.  LA Times columnist Sandy Banks has written about these, and devoted today's column to readers' reactions and her reactions to their views.  Here are some outtakes (readers remarks to Banks in quotes):
"I have seen several violent arguments, many extremely crazy people and I would never be surprised if someone pulled a gun and started shooting," wrote Dan, who rides the Red Line regularly from North Hollywood to Staples Center.

"If you have any sense, you should be afraid and wary," he wrote. The Red Line "is the Wild West."

So, apparently, is the Green Line, according to a reader who feels the need to carry pepper spray and a stun gun on his rides from Norwalk to Redondo Beach. A few months back, a fellow passenger tried to push him from his seat. "I punch him in his face and spray him," he wrote. "He jumped off the train at the next stop."

"You have no idea what we have to put up with a daily basis."

It's too simplistic to say that we see only what we expect to see. But the divergent descriptions I received can't be reconciled with the notion of a singular reality.
Crime and accident figures show that riding the subway is certainly safer than walking in some neighborhoods or driving on our traffic-clogged streets. The Red Line attack was the first homicide in the subway's 18-year history.
Safety is about perception, though, not just bare statistics. And passengers feel safe when they trust one another and have confidence in the system to protect them.
Reader Dan spent his career "around violent people, so I am not easily intimidated," he wrote. On his Red Line ride, he sees rude passengers "taking up two seats and daring you to protest" and rule-breakers "who board with ELECTRIC GUITARS (battery packs) and begin torturing the riders" with music.

Across town, on the Green Line, "the ride is pure hell," the man with the pepper spray said. "You have people talking loud with foul language, thugs menacing riders, transients stretched out sleeping on the train all day long.…

"And there's never a policeman around when it happens. Most people I know carry some type of weapon on the Green Line," he wrote. "I'm not saying that the killing on the Red Line was justified, but I know there are very unreasonable people riding the Metro trains, and I don't intend to be one of their victims."

In other words, a sense of lawlessness on the trains may push reality closer to perception.
For some riders, putting a mirror to society is part of the joy of subway travel.
"There's a sense of equality on the trains. Everyone is using it for one reason or another. They don't have a car, maybe they can't drive, or they want to reduce their carbon footprint."

They're all crammed in together, regardless of reason or circumstances. And "unlike buses, the train drivers are cut off from passengers. So it is your fellow passengers who must aid and assist you," Compton said.

Passengers might not be willing to break up a fight or wrestle a man with a knife to the ground. But when a teenage boy had a nosebleed on her train, "everyone came to his aid, offering Kleenex, handkerchiefs and even cold bottled water."

So she doesn't mind the man peddling candy in the aisle or the "vagabond musicians, who play and sing and hope you toss them a monetary donation."

It's a rare chance in sprawling, subdivided Los Angeles for people from different walks of life to rub shoulders.
Our transit system, like our city, is unwieldy, unpredictable, incomplete and often inconvenient. Embracing public transit requires a mind-set change — a willingness to make accommodations, to mix it up, to improvise.

What if Wilson is right?  Some of the reduction in crime stems from the fact that more of us have gotten better at avoiding bad people and bad situations.  The public-space-public-facilities-public-schools-public-transit fans rightly point to the value of  "rubbing shoulders".  But denial is never useful.  Sermonizing that it's cool to just "mix it up" falls on deaf ears.  I suspect that many of Banks' critics understand very well what Wilson is talking about and have it on their list to get out of harm's way just as soon as they can afford to do so.