Northwest

Sound Transit boosted security spending before last weekend’s Seattle violence

Recent violent acts at a Seattle light rail station and aboard a light rail car have raised questions about Sound Transit security measures.
Recent violent acts at a Seattle light rail station and aboard a light rail car have raised questions about Sound Transit security measures. The Seattle Times File, 2016

Long before last weekend’s shooting at Seattle’s Westlake Station, leaders at Sound Transit were concerned about maintaining a sense of safety for the 80,000 daily light-rail passengers.

The agency boosted the security budget nearly 37% this year to $34.4 million, largely because it took over the downtown transit tunnel in March from King County when the tunnel became rail-only.

Along with more police and security guards, the agency is upgrading the tunnel’s radio network and video surveillance, partly funded by federal homeland-security grants. There are 67 police and 150 Securitas guards covering Sound Transit’s extensive rail, bus and parking facilities.

Transit officials say that effort reflects their determination to make the downtown trains and stations a more secure environment than Third Avenue, just a staircase away.

“It is certainly our goal to have the safest system, and to have the system be safer than what’s happening at street level, no matter which of a dozen cities we’re serving,” CEO Peter Rogoff said Monday.

On the night of Sept. 13, an argument that started at Third and Pike Street spread down to the northbound boarding platform, where a gunman shot three people in their 20s, one fatally, at around 9:20 p.m. Police said Monday evening they’ve made an arrest.

The slain man was identified as 21-year-old Dawda Corr, the King County Medical Examiner’s Office said Monday.

It was the first homicide since 2016 along the 21-mile Link light-rail corridor.

Then on Saturday, a 42-year-old rider heading to the Husky football game suffered minor injuries when he was stabbed on a northbound train.

In response to the weekend violence, more transit police shifted to downtown from other areas, Rogoff said. Private security guards have increased from the usual two officers per station to three, in addition to roving teams. Seattle police dispatched an emphasis patrol of bike officers to the nearby streets.

Sound Transit reported four robberies, four aggravated assaults and 18 other assaults on the 21-mile light-rail network during the first eight months of 2019, comparable to other years. But simple assaults have increased since 2016, while ridership has doubled.

“What we’re seeing in the downtown tunnel stations is what’s happening on the platform is starting to reflect what’s happening on the street level,” Rogoff said. “Nationally, it’s pretty well understood that crime in transit systems is going to be related to the situation where the station is located.”

Seattle has undergone many cycles of extra patrols or sting operations on Third Avenue, while the city struggles to solve issues surrounding addiction, violence, homelessness and mental illness.

In 2010, a 15-year-old girl was beaten unconscious inside Westlake Station, as security guards from a previous contractor looked on, another dispute that boiled over from the street.

Sound Transit’s 2019 budget calls for 18 police, under contract with the King County Sheriff’s Office, dedicated to the downtown tunnel — an increase of at least six to assure 24-hour coverage. There’s a planned $900,000 video surveillance upgrade for the operations center, and $1.25 million to improve radio equipment. Ten video monitoring screens will be added.

On Sept. 13, a guard saw the shooting from the opposite platform, made an emergency call, then ran to the northbound side to aid the victim, said transit spokesman Geoff Patrick.

While the shooting wasn’t transit-related, the stabbing happened aboard a train in an apparently random attack.

“I don’t really feel any more or less inclined to use light rail. It was just a bad weekend,” said stabbing victim Scott Leonardson in a phone interview Monday, while recovering at home. “I’ve always seen a good presence, whether it’s the fare enforcement, police or security around the platform.”

Saturday afternoon, he entered the back of a northbound train at Angle Lake Station, and was leaning forward to play a video game with his son when a man behind him muttered something, then leaned onto the top of Leonardson’s seat.

He felt the assailant’s left arm pressing across his chest.

“He pulled me back. I felt a little blow from the side. I jumped up and grabbed my kids, and said, ‘Why the (expletive) did you do that?’”

A security guard was on the train and called in to report the attack, so deputies were ready at Pioneer Square Station to arrest the 25-year-old suspect, a Des Moines resident, on suspicion of fourth-degree assault.

Transit riders are following the news, some feeling shaken, others not.

“In general yes, I feel safe. If these incidents continue, I would not feel safe,” said Jenny Sprucher, a commuter from Kitsap County. Friends of hers have hosted visitors who were struck in the face while downtown, she said.

Sprucher said she has felt uncomfortable on buses sometimes, but would turn and walk away to de-escalate a situation.

Off-duty transit security guard Shawn Wheeler said he’s lived in Los Angeles and Atlanta and sees crime as less of a problem here; it’s mainly people using drugs.

As light-rail expands, Sound Transit designs new stations to have clear sightlines, lighting and surveillance to deter crime, unlike some old subways that have blind spots, such as in New York.

“I think our record is a solid one, in terms of being able to stay on top of lawlessness on the system,” Rogoff said. “There are certain agencies in the country who’ve learned the hard way, they’ve let it get away from them.”

For instance, he said, widespread petty crime has contributed to ridership slumps in Washington, D.C., where he lived for years before joining Sound Transit.

Rogoff predicted that last weekend’s incidents will not cause Seattle’s typically safe light-rail system to lose ridership.

Seattle Times reporters Sara Jean Green, Heidi Groover and Michelle Baruchman contributed to this story.

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