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DC Metro’s Transparency Called Into Question Over ‘Profoundly Disturbing’ Safety Concerns

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) officials are grappling with questions about crime transparency and fears over system reliability, after authorities left a June 30 assault unreported and officials fired a operator after a near collision Tuesday.

WMATA officials promised the public in May they would begin tweeting out alerts of violent crimes in the metro system as they take place. A recent assault did not fit WMATA’s definition of a violent crime, however, and went unreported, raising questions over transparency, reports WJLA.

Human error added to officials’ headache Tuesday after a train approaching the Glenmont Station ran a red signal, then entered a switch, which placed it on the same track as an oncoming train. Metro General Manger Paul Wiedefeld revealed Friday it was a “near miss” collision that threatened the safety of passengers aboard both trains and workers in the tunnels. Wiedefeld fired the operator over the incident. (RELATED: Metro Officials Oddly Quiet After ‘Smoldering Debris Fire’ Injures Commuter)

While the incidents deal with different aspects of safety, questions raised over WMATA’s culture are damaging its public image.

“The facts in this matter suggest a blatant disregard for safety that I find profoundly disturbing,” Wiedefeld said in a letter to employees obtain Friday by WAMU. “We need to step back in this moment and understand what a fundamental change in safety culture requires of all of us. Safety is not a slogan. We hold the lives of people in our hands. Making a choice to ignore safety rules puts those lives at risk.”

Complaints over crime transparency stem from an alleged assault of a man boarding at the Wheaton Station June 30. After boarding the train in the afternoon, four individuals attacked the man, repeatedly punching him in the face. The unidentified suspects got off at the next stop, Forest Glen, and fled the scene. (RELATED: Police Beef Up Security At DC Metro Stations To Combat Rising Crime)

Authorities did not reveal the incident until Thursday, when the Metro Transit Police tweeted a photo of a person of interest in the alleged assault.

The Metropolitan Police Department said in May Wiedefeld directed police to broadcast any violent events to the public on the same day, as long as it does not interfere with the police investigation. A woman raped at knife point aboard a train in April prompted the decision after the assault went unreported to the public for over a month.

A WMATA official responded to criticism Friday over failure to report the most recent assault, saying the definition of a violent crime does not include every crime that occurs in the metro system. In the June 30 assault, the man suffered non-life threatening injuries which were treated at a hospital, which is not considered a crime worth reporting under WMATA guidelines.

“Major crimes are felonies in the following categories: homicide, rape, arson, terror offenses, and any incident (assault/robbery/etc) resulting in life-threatening injury,” WMATA spokesman Dan Stessel told WJLA in an email.

Riders expressed frustration with the definition used for reporting crimes, arguing the public deserves to hear about any violent incident in the transit system. (RELATED: Crime In The DC Metro System Sees Dramatic Year-Over-Year Spike)

“We need to know these kinds of things, absolutely,” rider Maria Sage told WJLA. “Everyone needs to know.”

A spokesman for WMATA said in May crime is up year-over-year by 10.1 percent, and is only increasing. Police have increased patrols and security at five D.C. metro stations in response to the rising crime rate.

Police are fearful WMATA’s 10-month repair plan could lead to increased crimes around stations, especially close to closing. SafeTrack closes stations throughout the system at midnight every night to allow for nighttime maintenance. Authorities fear passengers waiting outside stations for alternate transport after hours could present an easy target for criminals.

WMATA officials will make their 24-hour police blotter available to the public in October to allow quicker commuter access to key crime and safety information.

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