All posts by Cozumel Ty

Spike seen in cellphone thefts on Metro lines

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WASHINGTON — Metro passengers may want to limit their cellphone use after new data shows an increasing number of crooks lurking the trains waiting to steal phones.

According to recently released statistics, there was a spike in 2013, and the trend was evident across the system.

“[Thieves] time it perfectly and wait for the doors to open or close,” says Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik.

In 2012 there were approximately 350 incidents of cellphones being stolen across the Metro system. Last year, that number was around 550, a spike of nearly 60 percent.

“It’s challenging,” Pavlik says. “But it’s something we’re going to tackle.”

As smartphone technology has gotten more advanced, the devices have become more appealing targets.

“The average person who steals it has no intention of activating it as a cellphone again. It still is a very valuable piece of equipment,” explains Pavlik.

Police are redirecting resources and working to address the growing problem. Meanwhile, passengers are being urged to take some small steps, including keeping phones out of sight while on trains or at least limiting use.

Nearly all victims have been younger than 25 years old and most are female, but the crime can happen to anyone as long as thieves feels they have an opportunity.

“Be aware of what’s going on around you,” Pavlik says.

Below is a breakdown of the thefts that occurred in calendar year 2012 and calendar year 2013.

 

CALDENDAR YEAR 2013 CALENDAR YEAR 2012
Total theft snatches 640 cases 490 cases
Theft snatch cases involve personal electronic devices 94 percent (603 cases) 87 percent (424 cases)
iPhones 71 percent 60 percent
Cellphones 20 percent 23 percent
Tablets 8 percent 12 percent
iPods less than 1 percent 2 percent
Thefts of handbags, walletts, money, clothing 37 cases 66 cases
Male suspects 93 percent 94 percent
Suspects younger than 25 years old 98 percent 96 percent
Suspects who acted alone 76 percent 84 percent
Victims 69 percent women 50/50 for men and women

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Lawmakers seek to restore trust in speed cameras

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The House Environmental Matters Committee approved a bill that would set up an ombudsman to let people resolve speed-camera disputes without going to court. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A new position will work to ease drivers’ frustration with speed cameras in Maryland after a House committee’s meeting Tuesday.

At a hearing Tuesday, the House Environmental Matters Committee heard testimony on a number of bills to reform speed-camera programs, ultimately deciding to accept a measure that would create an ombudsman in each county and town that would serve as a customer service liaison between police and drivers.

House Bill 929, proposed by Delegates James Malone, D-Baltimore County, and Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, would also explicitly define a school zone as K-12 and requires cameras to be located within a half-mile of the center point of the school.

“When people have a complaint or a concern, the driver will be able to go to [the ombudsman], as opposed to the court. Hopefully, a lot of these erroneous tickets that people are getting will be able to get taken care of with an ombudsman,” Malone says.

“We’re going to watch the effect of the ombudsman across the state as much as we can. I’m sure when we pass state law that the local jurisdictions are adherent to the law. If they don’t, in my opinion, repercussions will have to be taken.”

McMillan says the ombudsman would give drivers a fair shake.

“An individual who gets a ticket from a speed camera can go to the individual, who’ll look at the records surrounding that camera, talk to the liaison. The liaison at the point can dismiss the ticket, and you wouldn’t even have to go to court. I think this is going to be useful to Maryland citizens.”

But some aren’t too confident that smaller jurisdictions in Prince George’s County will pick a reputable liaison. WTOP has chronicled problems in Fairmount Heights and Morningside and, in recent years, problems have also surfaced in Riverdale Park.

“Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, what we need is oversight: Having the Attorney General looking at this will bring fresh light to this dark subject,” says AAA Mid-Atlantic Spokesman John Townsend.

Ron Ely of the Maryland Drivers Alliance, an opponent of speed cameras, says the new position won’t make things worse.

“We’re not saying having an ombudsman is a bad thing,” Ely says.

“But the committee seems so determined to leave every local government to police themselves. You’ve got to wonder: Some of the local governments we’ve had the most problems with, who are they going to pick? Like in Morningside, they could pick their existing code enforcement officer.”

Ely is referring to Regina Foster, who was recently named code enforcement officer after stepping down from the town council for the second time in three years. In 2011, Foster resigned after a Maryland State Police investigation found that she may have inappropriately voided red-light camera tickets. She denied any wrongdoing.

Morningside driver Mike Weathersby testified on Tuesday. WTOP Ticketbuster helped him after his video showed him going the speed limit, yet he still received a ticket from the town. Weathersby recalled the story WTOP reported on last November to lawmakers, many of whom came to him afterward and apologized for the ordeal.

“Today was the first day I heard about it. I will be happy to work with Delegate Aisha Braveboy to see what we can do, to make sure it doesn’t continue or happen again,” says Malone.

Braveboy, D-Morningside, sent a letter to Morningside and urged them on WTOP Radio to conduct an independent audit of their program, similar to an audit conducted in Baltimore last year. Morningside told WTOP that if we wanted to conduct an independent audit, we would have to pay for it ourselves. Both Baltimore and Morningside used Brekford Corp. as their vendor.

“The truth is, Morningside is making money off of speed-camera tickets. It’s the cost of doing business to ensure whatever device you’re using is accurate. They should build the cost of an independent audit into their contracts and any town budget decisions they make. If you don’t have the desire to ensure the speed cameras in your town are accurate, then you shouldn’t be using them,” says Braveboy.

McMillan says HB 929 will help in places like Morningside.

“Quite candidly, a lot of the things that came out of Baltimore City and those jurisdictions you’ve identified in Prince George’s County were the motivation for this legislative,” he says.

“Under this legislation, everything that Morningside has done, as far as records, would be open to the public. It also requires the Town of Morningside to have their equipment calibrated daily and checked and validated annually from someone other than Brekford. I think all these things will restore confidence in towns like Morningside.”

 

 

 

Breaking: Silver Line Delay Disappointment

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WASHINGTON– Transit riders looking forward to the opening of the Silver Line in Tysons Corner and Reston will have to wait longer, as the project will face more delays and repairs.

Sources tell WTOP that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) will announce on Monday that it does not consider the Silver Line complete, citing issues with the automatic train control circuitry and other new issues. The contractor building the Silver Line told MWAA on Feb. 7 that it believed the project was complete. MWAA had 15 days to inspect the work and decide whether it agreed that the tracks could be turned over to Metro.

The automatic train control circuits and other electronic signal issues were behind a delay announced late last year that caused the project to be delayed into 2014. Originally, MWAA and Metro hoped the Silver Line would open to passengers in late December 2013, although WTOP reported last June that such a launch would not happen.

Circuit and signal issues are troubling because those components were cited as causes of the deadly 2009 Metro crash outside Ft. Totten, which killed nine people. Metro shut down automatic train operation afterwards and trains still run in manual mode, which is a subset of the automatic train control system.

Sources tell WTOP that MWAA’s decision will delay the project at least three weeks, if not longer. Once MWAA does agree the project is complete, it will turn over the Silver Line to Metro for another 90 days of testing.

While no firm deadline is set for a grand opening, the delay means the Silver Line will not likely open until at least July 2014.

On Thursday, Fairfax County Supervisor Cathy Hudgins told WTOP that she would be very disappointed if the Silver Line did not open before the end of the summer.

Metro loses about $2 million each month the Silver Line is not open.

Follow @WTOP on Twitter and on the WTOP Facebook page.

Dunbar Teacher Handcuffed, Questioned by Metro Transit Police in Front of Her Students

In a case of mistaken identity, Metro Transit Police handcuffed and questioned a D.C. teacher in front of her students for a crime the students did not commit.

Brandi Byrd took 15 history students from Dunbar High School to the Holocaust Museum. After getting off a train at Mount Vernon Square on their way back to school, the students were shocked to see their teacher pushed against a wall.

“I’m like, ‘That’s a woman. Why are you being so aggressive with her?'” Carlton Green said.

Byrd couldn’t believe it either. “I’ve never been held against my will anywhere,” she said.

Metro police said they were responding to a report of an assault, and the students matched the description.

“I told him. I identified who I was,” Byrd said. “‘I’m a teacher. These are my students. We’re returning from a field trip.'”

But police held her for 20 minutes, and students recorded the incident on their cellphones.

“At no point did the gentleman who put me in handcuffs tell me why I was in handcuffs,” she said.

He only said she was being detained because of an active investigation, Byrd said.

Byrd became agitated and disorderly while police tried to figure out who the kids were, Metro officials said, but Byrd denied being any kind of threat and said police went too far by putting her in cuffs.

Police let the group go when they figured out it was not the group they wanted.

Byrd feels violated and said it still hurts where the metal handcuffs were clamped around her wrists.

http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Dunbar-Teacher-Handcuffed-Metro-Transit-Police-Students-246288141.html?_osource=SocialFlowTwt_DCBrand

Watchdog report: Metro employees cheat the parking system

WASHINGTON (WJLA) – A viewer complaint to ABC7’s Watchdog unit asked us to investigate illegal parking by WMATA employes at the Anacostia Metro Station’s parking garage.

The viewer claimed while she was ticketed for her meter running out, Metro employees were being allowed to cheat the system.

The small parking lot adjacent to the Anacostia Metro parking lot garage is popular with Metro employees. It allows for up to 12 hours of metered parking, but many Metro employees aren’t paying – the meters all read “expired.”

ABC7 made multiple visits, seeing many of the same cars parked for free.

According to the “Metro Employee Parking Policy – Reminder” memo sent to all employees last January and obtained by ABC7 News, “Metro employes must pay the Board-approved parking fees to park personal vehicles at Metrorail stations and Metro parking facilities.”

But what about the parking passes, vests and even a police patch seen on the dash boards of more than a dozen vehicles parked at expired meters?

Employees were told, in writing, those items “do not relieve an employee of the responsibility to pay parking fees and parking meter charges.”

“I work for Metro and I don’t think I should have to pay, period,” says one Metro employee.

Some Metro customers disagree.

“They shouldn’t be cheating the system,” says John Joyce. “I have to pay just like anybody else. I’m a paying customer.”

“I’m definitely paying to park,” says Moses Muldrow. “They should pay to park.”

In a statement to ABC7 News, WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel says:

“This is an issue that comes up from time to time, and one that requires occasional reinforcement with employees… employees parking their personal vehicles must comply with all applicable parking fees and regulations. I have forwarded the complaint to MTPD who will step up patrols at Anacostia to resolve the issue.”

The transit agency says it also received a complaint from a rider about the situation at the Anacostia parking garage and promised the Transit Police would step up patrols.

On ABC7’s next visit, nearly every Metro employee’s vehicle parked at an expired meter had a $25 citation on the windshield.

Judge orders Metro’s ‘banana peel man’ to undergo psychological screening

The District Heights man dubbed Metro’s “banana peel man” was ordered to undergo a psychological screening Tuesday by a D.C. Superior Court judge.

Judge Anita Josey-Herring ordered Maurice Owens, 42, for the screening based on a request from his attorney, Henry Escoto.

Owens slipped into notoriety last summer when he sued Metro after claiming he fell on a banana peel. Owens told Metro police he was riding an elevator at the Potomac Avenue Metro station Aug. 8, 2013, when he slipped on a banana peel as he was getting off, injuring his hip and leg. The District Heights man sued the transit agency for $15,000 — in part to cover $4,500 in chiropractor bills.

But the whole incident was caught on videotape — and it showed something different.

On the video, Owens could be seen going into an empty elevator at the station.

He paces around a bit, then glances up into the elevator’s camera. More pacing. Another glance at the camera. In fact, in the video, which is about 90 seconds long, Owens is seen looking into the camera at least three times.

Toward the end of the video, as the elevator doors open, Owens can be seen flipping something onto the floor behind him. According to a Metro Transit Police report, “this object was later identified as a banana peel.”

In a dramatic gesture, Owens falls to the ground — half his body inside the elevator.

His claim against Metro was thrown out, and Owens, 42, was charged with second-degree fraud, a felony. Owens is considering a plea deal from prosecutors that would reduce the charge to a misdemeanor.

Owens is scheduled to return to court Friday.

 

State apologizes for damage to homes along I-270

WASHINGTON – Maryland highway officials apologized Tuesday after several people living along Interstate 270 in Rockville and Germantown reported their windows were broken late last week by ice and rocks that apparently came over the highway’s 20-foot tall sound barrier.

“This is not normal, it’s not acceptable, and we believe it was a contractor using a snow thrower, so for anybody who’s had damages to their home or property, they can file a claim to get reimbursed,” says Valerie Burnette Edgar with the State Highway Administration.

These types of insurance claims are handled through the Maryland State Treasurer’s Office, using a “Notice of Claim” form.

Homeowners with damage can also call the Treasurer’s Office at 800-942-0162.

“If it is indeed, we believe, our contractor, the state will seek to get the damages covered by the contractor,” Burnette Edgar says.

About 70 percent of SHA snow-removal workers are part of contract crews who go through much of the same training that state employees do.

“We’re also going to take a look at what happened, and make sure we work with the contractor and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she says.

Normally, Burnette Edgar says extra snow would be pushed onto wide shoulders, space between the highway and ramps or other spaces, but the overwhelming amount of snow led to the use of snow blowers to keep the pavement clear for drivers.

“Snow piled up in a big mound on the side of the road is a hazard, so they needed to get that off the shoulders and out of the way, particularly on a high-speed interstate. It’s obviously not acceptable to have it go into a residential area like that, and we truly regret and apologize for that inconvenience and problem for the residents,” she says.

In Rockville, Mary Plummer said it sounded like an avalanche.

In Germantown, Joseph Belcher and his wife Kristi say their 3-year-old son was right next to a window when the rocks came flying.

Burnette Edgar says SHA is not aware of any similar reports of issues on any other interstates or other state roads during the recent storms.

“Thus far, it seems to be an isolated incident along I-270. Every storm where we get a lot of accumulation, there’s some mailboxes and things like that that we have to repair, and we just ask for patience, and that you please file a claim with us,” she says.

Some of those smaller claims can be submitted through the SHA’s own online form. But that is not considered valid notice to the state for anyone who may be interested in filing an insurance claim through the Treasurer’s Office.

Towing company breaking state law by staking out parking lot

WASHINGTON — Towing companies in Maryland are continuing a predatory practice, despite a recently passed law meant to stop it, according to a NBC Washington report.

Legislation went into effect in 2012 prohibiting “spotters.” Those are employees hired by towing companies to stake out a certain location and look for cars they can haul away.

“Somebody who just stands on the street or hides in a garage or building just waiting on someone to walk off the property, one false step, waiting for someone to exceed the limit by one minute,” Eric Friedman, an investigator with Montgomery County’s Office of Consumer Protection, tells NBC Washington.

NBC Washington’s investigative team watched as spotters perused the lots at Blairs Shopping Center in Silver Spring. Signs are posted around the parking lot saying “Walk Offs Will be Towed,” which means drivers can’t park in the lot and leave the property.

Moments after drivers left the property, spotters snapped photos of the car and towed them in many cases. In one instance, the spotters incorrectly identified a man leaving and towed his car though he was legally parked there.

According to Friedman, spotters are most active in areas around shopping malls.

“A lot of consumers don’t realize that somebody is watching them in many cases,” Friedman tells NBC Washington.

NBC Washington reports at least one company, G&G Towing, is suing the state, claiming the law is unconstitutional and oppressive.

Drivers who suspect they have fallen victim to a spotter should report the incident.

Buses replace trains on 2 Metro lines this weekend

WASHINGTON (AP) — Buses will replace trains on sections of the orange and blue lines this weekend.

Metro says beginning Friday at 10 p.m. and continuing through closing on Sunday, buses will replace orange line trains between Eastern Market and Cheverly. On the blue line, buses will replace trains between Eastern Market and Benning Road. Elsewhere on both lines, trains will run at 15 minute intervals.

On the green line, trains will operate at regular weekend intervals except at the Greenbelt station where trains will arrive and depart every 20 to 25 minutes between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. On the red line, trains will operate every 16 minutes, but between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. additional trains will run between Van Ness and Silver Spring.

No yellow line work is scheduled.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Grammy winner analyzes Metro announcements: Unclear

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) – Now a Grammy winning sound engineer’s analysis has found 95% of Metrorail announcements tested unacceptable, but – even in the wake of a similar WUSA9 test published over a week ago – WMATA won’t answer questions on the subject or even acknowledge the scope of the problem.

“Five percent maybe, at most,” is what sound engineer Pete Novak deemed understandable during a recent 19 stop spot-check on the Redline. “It’s getting lost. Not a clue.”

Metro won’t answer our questions, maybe they’ll answer yours. You can e-mail the WMATA Board of Directors here: BoardofDirectors@wmata.com.

An earlier WUSA9 analysis found 79% of Metro announcements unclear or worse.

Despite the WUSA9 analysis, social media outcries identifying similar commuter concerns, and a WUSA9 public #MetroIntervention on the subject at Farragut North, WMATA’s only response to the engineer’s analysis has been to re-issue the same statement it released for our original story of audio problems.

“Mystery riders found that announcements were understandable 85 percent of the time,” said Caroline Laurin in the re-issued statement. “It is important to note that we will soon begin the replacement of more than a third of Metro’s fleet–every 1000- and 4000-series car–with new 7000-series cars that feature all digital audio systems and automated announcements for improved clarity and consistency.”

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles recently estimated the year 2020 as when half the fleet could be updated with the 7000 series audio systems, pending funding.

Novak doesn’t know trains, but he does know sound.

He won his Grammy for the Outkast Album of the Year, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.”

He is also an engineer and instructor at Rockville’s Omega Studios.

During his Redline review, Novak cocked his head and expressed confusion at nearly every announcement.

“Not a clue. Soup?” Novak asked trying to interpret one announcement. “So much static in that message.”

Novak identified what he believes could be inexpensive, quick fixes to the problem.

He believes audio levels should be increased, operators should be trained to better use the microphones and enunciate, announcements should be prevented from being made at the same time as the trains automated doors closing warnings, and train speaker systems should be combined.

“”The automated announcement are a good 20 decibels louder than what’s coming out of the from the conductor,” Novak said of warnings from the separate automated speaker system.

He said design issues could be impacting the other speakers serving the operator’s announcements.

“So that speaker is very directional,” Novak said. “Coming straight down. It’s getting lost. It might need to be mounted different.”

“You can have two things going over the same speaker, he said as another unclear announcement interrupted him. “I still don’t know where we’re going next.”

WUSA9 offered to share with WMATA Novak’s opinions that some easy changes could make big improvements, but Metro did respond.

http://www.wusa9.com/story/news/investigations/russ-ptacek/2014/02/17/metro-announcements-grammy-unclear-understandable/5562059/