A Metro Red LIne train departs the Hollywood and Highland station. Crime… (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles…)
I have been castigated by readers who felt I over-dramatized the peril of riding L.A.'s subway system in my Saturday column about the fatal stabbing of a Red Line rider 11 days ago.
"You're joking, right?" wrote Julia Tyson La Grua. "I rode the Gold, Red and Purple lines every weekday for 3 months when I was on jury duty in Koreatown and they were immaculately clean, prompt and I felt entirely safe."
But I was also scolded by readers who thought I soft-pedaled the risks that passengers face on the city's five subway lines.
"I have seen several violent arguments, many extremely crazy people and I would never be surprised if someone pulled a gun and started shooting," wrote Dan, who rides the Red Line regularly from North Hollywood to Staples Center.
"If you have any sense, you should be afraid and wary," he wrote. The Red Line "is the Wild West."
So, apparently, is the Green Line, according to a reader who feels the need to carry pepper spray and a stun gun on his rides from Norwalk to Redondo Beach. A few months back, a fellow passenger tried to push him from his seat. "I punch him in his face and spray him," he wrote. "He jumped off the train at the next stop."
"You have no idea what we have to put up with a daily basis."
And the passengers riding the Gold Line last Friday night can't be feeling too good right now. Two fellows began brawling as the train rolled through Pasadena, and one stabbed and seriously wounded the other.
Wild West or Mayberry RFD? The truth, I suppose, depends on many things: the neighborhood, the time of day, the random calculus of fate … and the personal perspective the rider brings.
It's too simplistic to say that we see only what we expect to see. But the divergent descriptions I received can't be reconciled with the notion of a singular reality.
Crime and accident figures show that riding the subway is certainly safer than walking in some neighborhoods or driving on our traffic-clogged streets. The Red Line attack was the first homicide in the subway's 18-year history.
Safety is about perception, though, not just bare statistics. And passengers feel safe when they trust one another and have confidence in the system to protect them.
Reader Dan spent his career "around violent people, so I am not easily intimidated," he wrote. On his Red Line ride, he sees rude passengers "taking up two seats and daring you to protest" and rule-breakers "who board with ELECTRIC GUITARS (battery packs) and begin torturing the riders" with music.
Julia rode the Red Line too. But on her train, "Total strangers chatted with one another. Younger riders gave up their seats for pregnant women and the elderly. Everyone was generous with directions."
Across town, on the Green Line, "the ride is pure hell," the man with the pepper spray said. "You have people talking loud with foul language, thugs menacing riders, transients stretched out sleeping on the train all day long.…
"And there's never a policeman around when it happens. Most people I know carry some type of weapon on the Green Line," he wrote. "I'm not saying that the killing on the Red Line was justified, but I know there are very unreasonable people riding the Metro trains, and I don't intend to be one of their victims."
In other words, a sense of lawlessness on the trains may push reality closer to perception.
Judging from my emails, a lot of riders feel that way. They are, no doubt, a tiny proportion of the 1 billion passengers who have ridden the subway. But almost all say they have been regular riders and many expressed a sense that things are getting worse.
"I think the MTA is cheaping out on security and cleaning of the system," wrote David Sanchez. The stations are dirtier, "and you don't see the sheriff's deputies on the trains and in the stations like you used to."
Metro spokesman Marc Littman said there are 16 to 25 deputies assigned to the Red Line route. It took deputies less than five minutes to respond to the stabbing call. But by then, the train had pulled into the station and the suspect was gone.
In Friday's Gold Line incident, deputies met the train, along with Pasadena police and firefighters, and the knife-wielding suspect was arrested.
Littman said the transit agency's security contract with the Sheriff's Department is under review and up for renewal next month. "But what if you could quadruple the number of officers. Would that make a difference?" he asked.
Patrols have been stepped up in the wake of the stabbings. But Littman made a sobering point when we talked last week:
"We've got cameras on the train, in every car. Barriers. Undercover officers. But I'm not going to tell you that we can flat-out guarantee you're never going to have an incident like this on the subway.… What happens on the train mirrors what goes on in society."
For some riders, putting a mirror to society is part of the joy of subway travel.