For today’s COVID-19 Report, we asked transit police chiefs to tell us about the issues they are seeing on their train, subway and bus lines, including changing crime patterns and passengers’ adherence to laws or guidance on social distancing and use of masks.


Key Takeaways

-- Both ridership and crime have decreased significantly in transit systems. With fewer people leaving their homes, commuting to work, and traveling to other destinations, ridership has been down significantly. As the number of potential crime victims has decreased, the number of crimes has fallen.

-- Some crime patterns have changed. For example, Amtrak is responding to more calls in their stations involving people experiencing homelessness. And the NYPD has seen more larcenies escalate to robberies, because with platforms empty, victims are chasing thieves who grab phones or handbags.

-- Transit police are taking an education-first approach to masks and social distancing. Agencies are making every effort to use education rather than enforcement to promote use of masks and social distancing. Many agencies are providing officers with masks to distribute to riders who do not have them.

-- Officer safety remains extremely important. Transit officers often need to work in confined spaces, putting them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Agencies are making sure they have sufficient supplies of PPE and are taking other precautions, such as building decontamination rooms, to protect officers.


Chief Ed Delatorre, NYPD Transit Bureau:

We’ve Seen an 80% Drop in Passengers

When COVID first hit, the Transit Bureau had the highest rate within in the NYPD of people testing positive and people being out sick. At one point, about 30% of my force was out. That was the early challenge.

We transport up to 6 million people per day at 492 stations. Once New York went to essential workers only, around March 23, we lost more than 80% of our passengers. From that point on, we saw a reduction in crime.

New York had a number of laws go into effect this year, including bail reform. Bail reform had a significant impact on transit, because most of the crimes that were eligible for pretrial release were the meat and potatoes of the Transit Bureau. So we started off the year with increased crime levels. Once we hit March 23, we saw a fairly dramatic decrease.

Until COVID, New York had never shut our subways down. But in early May we started shutting the subway system down from 1:00 to 5:00 a.m. Once we did that, we saw an even bigger reduction in crime.

Crime overall is down, but we’re not seeing as significant a decrease in violence. Our grand larcenies are way down. We’re seeing a dynamic where more of our grand larcenies than usual are turning into robberies. We have nearly empty train platforms, so when a perpetrator snatches something, the victim can chase them down, and we’re seeing more confrontations between perpetrators and victims. That escalates the crimes to robberies, which are violent crimes.

We coordinate with New York City Transit about social distancing. We’ve been receiving all the complaints and send our officers out to deal with them. We put teams of officers with bullhorns in 25 of the largest stations during the morning and evening rush hours to encourage social distancing and wearing masks. We also deal with about 100 homeless persons on trains per night.

All our transit officers carry supplies of masks, and if they see someone in the transit system without a mask, they’ll offer them one. We don’t mandate masks, we just encourage them and give them a mask. We’ve handed out 50,000 masks. Our compliance is pretty good right now.

At our low point, we were down to about 400,000-600,000 passengers per day. Now we’re at about 1.1-1.2 million per day during the week, so we’re starting to see increased usage. We’re going to keep our approach the same as the number of passengers increases, because it’s been effective. Once we get back up to 5 or 6 million passengers per day, social distancing isn’t a possibility. What will be most important then is that everyone wears their masks.


BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Chief Ed Alvarez:

Since COVID Began, We’ve Only Issued About 5 Citations for Refusing to Wear a Mask

Our ridership took a hard hit. We’re hovering at about 50,000 people per day, and we used to be at about 450,000. We had to adjust our patrol hours to match the transit system, so we’re closing the stations around 10:30 p.m. It used to be 1:30-2:00 a.m. We had to adjust schedules for a lot of officers working the night shift.

We’ve only had one positive COVID test so far. Our attendance is well over 90%, and our officers have done an excellent job showing up for work. We tried to get ahead of it and get PPE out to our front-line personnel. Like everyone else, we had trouble getting some of the necessary PPE early on, but now we have a lot more equipment available.

We created decontamination rooms at some of our substations, so that officers who may have been exposed can do a decontamination before they go home. We also contracted with a company to decontaminate our patrol cars if we transport someone who may be COVID-positive.

We work with our communications department to message about social distancing. We put stickers and signs in the stations and on our trains to encourage people to socially distance. We’ve also done announcements inside the stations.

We give our officers face coverings to hand out to people who need them before they enter our system. The counties we serve require face coverings, but we try to lead with education. Since the pandemic began, we’ve only issued about five citations to people who flat-out refused to wear a face covering in our system.


Amtrak Assistant Chief Sam Dotson:

We Shifted to Only Selling 50% or Fewer Seats on a Train

Our ridership and our crime dropped significantly in late February/early March. We got to a 50% reduction in crime compared to last year, and we kind of plateaued there. The crime that was still occurring was focused on our stations and the homeless populations there. That population was impacted by this pandemic just like we all were. Anecdotally I hear stories about how panhandlers in New York who were making $200 per day are now making $20, and they’re trying to make up the difference. So we’ve seen an increase in small crimes, like shoplifting, pickpockets, and stolen cell phones.

Early on, Amtrak shifted to only selling up to 50% capacity on a train to allow for social distancing. On some routes we’re moving to assigned seating so we can control the number of people on a train and maintain social distancing. Amtrak also put a mandatory mask policy into place, and we can send out reminders to people who buy their tickets in advance. When boarding, we call people up in groups to try to avoid everyone crowding together. We’re trying to follow the CDC guidance and are tracking what the airlines are doing.

On an average day we move about 100,000 people. At the peak of COVID we saw about a 95% reduction. We’re starting to see that move back up now. Many of our long-distance routes were not as impacted as our short-distance Northeast Corridor routes.


Detroit Transit Chief Ricky Brown:

If Passengers Refuse to Wear a Mask, Our Bus Drivers Ask Them to Leave

Our department solely deals with the buses. Our M-1 streetcar and our elevated rail system in downtown Detroit have both shut down. Before COVID, we had strictly enforced our no stopping, no parking, no standing rules on Woodward, where the streetcar runs. When the streetcar stopped running and many restaurants on Woodward started doing pickup and delivery, cars started getting backed up on Woodward. It’s going to be difficult to begin enforcing those rules when the streetcar starts running again.

Our transit system is currently free. All drivers are required to wear masks. We have masks on the buses to be issued to anyone who boards without one. The mayor has pushed a request for people to use masks, without making it mandatory. A lot of our calls for service have been drivers calling about passengers who refuse to wear masks. Our officers haven’t had any issues with passengers that have become physical or blown up into a national event.

Our governor just required masks for public places. We are trying to request that people wear masks, and if they refuse, we ask that they leave the bus.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.