AC Transit Continues Effort to Drive Down Bus Crime

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Some travelers riding on AC Transit buses in the Berkeley area during the holiday season were victims of theft and harassment, though administrators of the transit system maintain that they are dedicated to increasing safety.

On a Thursday evening last December, UC Berkeley graduate student Yael Degany had fallen asleep on an AC Transit F line bus as she traveled back to Berkeley from San Francisco with her boyfriend.

"I was taking a nap, and I woke up to all this noise," Degany said. "Someone was getting beat up right there on the bus."

Degany said she saw four or five teenagers crowded around a young woman with a purse. She said the teenagers struck the woman repeatedly until finally attaining her bag. As they left the bus, she said one of the suspects tried to take an electronic device - possibly an iPod or phone - from a male commuter through similar, violent means. The suspect did not manage to steal the device from the man, and the teenagers fled before police could arrive.

According to Degany, the bus driver told her that an incident similar to the one Degany witnessed had happened on the driver's bus only a few days ago. Degany said the driver told her that there are many muggings during the holiday season.

"The way the driver talked about it, it seemed like muggings were just an accepted thing that happens frequently," Degany said.

Last November, UCPD issued a crime alert stating a female student had been harassed and threatened on an AC Transit bus near the Downtown Berkeley BART station. After three men boarded the bus and sat around the victim, one began to touch the victim inappropriately, while another threatened her. One of the men said he would spray the victim with pepper spray if she called out for help.

Still, AC Transit buses are a popular and affordable means of transportation among UC Berkeley students because students with a Class Pass sticker on their student identification cards can ride the buses for free.

"Seeing the mugging happen ... was awful," Degany said. "It's not OK. (Muggings) can't be totally prevented, but I feel that they can be at least mitigated with actions taken toward heightened security."

Berkeley police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said in an e-mail that the Alameda County Sheriff's Department has jurisdiction over safety on the AC Transit bus lines system. According to AC Transit spokesperson Clarence Johnson, the department serves as an active patrol force for the buses and officers are occasionally placed on the buses to maintain safety.

"We work hand in hand with the sheriff's department," he said. "If we noticed one line had an acute rate of criminal incidents, we would target that line with specific patrols."

Johnson said that 143 of the 633 vehicles that constitute the entire AC Transit fleet of buses currently are equipped with cameras that can be used by police to identify suspects. He said that an additional 274 cameras will be procured and installed in buses by the end of the year.

"The camera systems are very expensive," he said. "They cost $14,000 apiece per bus ... They need to be quality systems for us to have any hope in gaining information about suspects."

According to Johnson, in addition to the police patrol force and cameras, bus drivers are trained to respond to emergencies, though not in the capacity of a police officer. He said drivers can trigger a silent alarm to summon police to the bus.

"I'd say our buses are safe," Johnson said. "Do we have assaults and theft occur occasionally on buses? Yes. But those incidents can and do occur in any public place, a church, a supermarket. We transport 235,000 passengers a day. A vast majority of them reach their desired destination unharmed."

Degany's bus had neither a patrol officer or a security camera installed, she said.

"(The mugging) has made me stay much more aware when I'm on the bus," she said. "More cameras will help ... but I won't ride the F line again."


Contact Jeffrey Butterfield at [email protected]

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