Metra crime grows with ridership, but 'it is a very safe system,' officials say
How safe is riding Metra?
A review of data between 2017 and 2022 shows crime decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic but has inched back up despite low ridership.
Crime reports reached 238 in 2017, hit 307 in 2018, and totaled 273 in 2019, according data acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request.
As thousands of Metra riders worked from home in 2020, offenses dropped to 193.
In 2021, the tally ticked up to 219, then rose again to 238 in 2022.
As of April 3, Metra had 84 crimes on the books in 2023, ranging from robberies to possession of marijuana.
"We're averaging about what we'd expect," Metra Police Chief Joseph Perez said, explaining that his department's responsibilities expanded from seven train lines to 10 in 2018, when police began patrolling Union Pacific routes. BNSF trains were added to the roster in 2020.
Factor in the pandemic and, "there's so many moving pieces there."
Occurrences range from crimes where someone's arrested, to reports of being harassed, to drug paraphernalia in a railcar. The most common offense is theft, comprising nearly 48% of 1,468 offenses over six years.
"Somebody will pick up someone's backpack that they weren't paying attention to or a laptop was left behind, and the person goes back to get it, and it's gone," Perez said.
Assaults are the second-most frequent crime at 26.4%, followed by batteries at 13%. Along with passengers who are victims, train crews and Metra police come in for a significant portion of the abuse, Perez said.
For perspective, Metra operated about 100,000 passenger trips each weekday in 2022. Before the pandemic, that total was an average of 281,000.
"There are reports of crimes, obviously, but given the size of our system and the number of riders - it is a very safe system," Communications Director Michael Gillis said.
Another dynamic that emerged during COVID-19 and plays into current numbers is an influx of homeless riders who "began taking refuge on our system when every place that they went to shut down," Perez said. Numerous assaults - verbal threats or comments - involve homeless riders and may be connected with mental illness, he added.
The department recorded two homicides and eight rapes over the six-year period. The deaths included a homicide suspect who killed himself in a shootout with police in a train near Deerfield in 2017 and the murder of a Joliet man pushed onto the tracks in October 2022.
Drug-related violations comprised about 5% of offenses and robberies 2.6%.
The railroad has only had one armed robbery in the last few years: A college student held up a conductor with a fake gun in February 2022, Perez noted.
Asked if crimes predominate on any particular route, "we see it pretty evenly spread across our system," he said. "I like to attribute that to our officers spreading themselves out and being very visible on all 11 lines."
The Daily Herald reviewed data starting in 2017, just after Metra revamped its recording system. Locations included trains, stations and other property.
Metra's service area is about 3,700 square miles across six counties. "We're covering a lot of ground, and I think we're doing it very well," Perez said.
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You should know
Perez, who joined Metra in 2014, pointed out improvements like contracting with the Cook County Sheriff's Office to handle dispatching, freeing up officers to walk trains.
Another is deploying a drone to crashes.
"With the assistance of GPS and mapping and software and cameras, we're able to fly over those scenes and able to map it almost instantly," he said. "We're clearing our scenes in half the time we used to when I first arrived."
Expect delays in Round Lake starting today as IDOT closes Route 60 between Belvidere and Peterson roads to replace a culvert. Work should wrap up in October.