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Ridding the MTA of Pests

An LAPD unit formed to catch pickpockets on commuter trains and buses finds it's busier protecting female riders from perverts.

October 07, 2002|CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Why, Tom Brown asked himself, is that creepy guy standing on the bus when there are empty places to sit, and why is he rocking his lower body back and forth into the shoulder of that seated teenage girl?

In his backward baseball cap, baggy T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, Brown might be mistaken for a low-budget tourist. But packed under his beach-casual garb is a gun, and in his pocket his Los Angeles Police Department badge--which Brown flashed at the sullen man, a 35-year-old cook, before hauling him away in handcuffs and booking him on suspicion of lewd acts on a minor.

In crowded mass-transit systems, female riders have long suffered the torment of getting pinched, fondled or rubbed against by sleazy men. For the last three years, a tiny unit within the 350-officer Metropolitan Transportation Authority police force has been trying to put a stop to it.

Brown and five colleagues were originally dispatched to catch pickpockets. But the undercover officers soon noticed behavior similar to that of pickpockets in a different breed of criminals. These characters--virtually all men, except for the occasional teenage boy--also stared at other riders, then aggressively moved in to make bodily contact. Like pickpockets, they focused at the level where wallets are typically tucked or purses worn--the waist and below. It helped them that female passengers, while visibly agitated, often did nothing to stop them.

This year, the Pickpocket Detail, as it's still called, is making four sex-offender busts for every pickpocket arrest. In its history, it has made 140 arrests for sexual offenses-- 62 so far this year, 44 last year and 21 the year before that.

Los Angeles is not alone in being concerned about transit perverts. Seoul subways have broadcast warnings against seamy behavior. Train operators in Tokyo, where riders are often crammed together so tightly that they can hardly breathe, have set aside cars for female riders to create a groper-free zone.

In New York City, the subway's 3,000 patrol officers made more than 400 sex-crime arrests last year, 285 of them involving incidents of public lewdness. There are no special crackdowns in New York on transit perverts per se, but the conduct is discouraged through a "strong uniformed presence" on station platforms, said Deputy Chief Ronald Rowland of the Police Department's transit bureau.

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Special Assignment

Transit law enforcement experts believe Los Angeles is unique in assigning undercover officers to hunt actively for gropers on buses and trains.

Other agencies might have officers "trolling for illicit behavior in all manners ... but nothing aimed directly" at sexual predators, said Kurt R. Nelson, author of the 1999 book, "Policing Mass Transit."

The suspects whom Los Angeles officers have cuffed range in age from 17 to 82, and include day laborers, businessmen, a chemical engineer, a teacher's aide, a gynecologist and a pastor. An estimated 80% are married with children.

The offenders' behavior seems compulsive. Officers have busted the West Los Angeles gynecologist twice and the North Hollywood pastor three times. Going up and down a bus aisle, left and right, an offender might leave several victims in his wake in a single ride.

There is a clinical explanation for what such men do. Frotteurism or frottage is a sexual deviance defined as a recurrent urge to engage in "touching and rubbing against a nonconsenting person" for sexual arousal and gratification, according to the American Psychiatric Assn.'s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

All the known cases of people with this disorder are male. Los Angeles transit police note that every victim they know, except for a long-haired boy who was mistaken for a girl, is female.

Habitats for such men tend to be crowded public places, such as buses, subways, elevators and spectator-heavy events. Frotteurism "is a very impulsive behavior, frequently not planned ... and it has an aggressive component to it," said Martin Kafka, a psychiatrist and a clinical assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Others say the behavior can be driven by a desire for power and control.

"In some cases it has to do with anger," said Charlene Steen, a Napa psychologist who has written three books on sex offenders. "In a lot of cases it has to do with people who don't know how to make appropriate contact with females."

Treatment options include cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressants and drugs that reduce sex drives. Unless there is intervention, experts say, men with this condition are likely to prey on women again and again.

That's why officers believe that keeping track of suspicious characters can pay off.

Take the case of the guy officers dubbed "Clark Kent." A few months ago, an officer saw the man, wearing thick black-framed glasses, grope a woman on a bus. But the Spanish-speaking victim refused to cooperate with authorities--who needed her statements to press charges--so an arrest couldn't be made.

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