Violent crimes on the CTA reach level not seen in over a decade

Dan Beam had a bad feeling about the two men who crossed into his Red Line car.

One eyed his shoulder bag while the other grabbed for his cellphone, setting off a sprawling melee with knives and glass bottles that brought into sharp focus the spike in violent crime on the CTA and the city’s struggles to contain it.

Beam, 42, was kicked in the face, stabbed in the collar bone and cracked over the head with bottles as he fended off first the two robbers and then four others who joined them. The July 22 attack spilled onto another train car and the platform of the North/Clybourn stop as Beam fought back, knifing three of them before jumping from the train and calling for help.

"It’s a traumatic experience," Beam told the Sun-Times. "I can’t imagine other people who aren’t as aware or vigilant or prepared as I am being in that type of situation."

The number of violent crimes on the CTA has jumped to a level that not seen in over a decade, according to a Sun-Times analysis of city data. Through July 19, at least 488 attacks had been reported on the transit system, the highest since 533 during the same period in 2011.


Because the number of passengers has remained relatively low since the pandemic hit, the data indicates riders are more likely to fall victim to a violent crime than they were a few years ago.

Violent crimes accounted for over 26% of the 1,863 crimes reported on the CTA this year. In 2018 and 2019, when there were far more riders, the average was just 13%.

The deployment of police officers on the CTA system has not kept pace with the rise in crime, the data shows.

There are 145 officers assigned to the Chicago Police Department’s transit units, down 92 officers from a peak in April 2020. They are supplemented by more than 250 unarmed guards, an initiative launched by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in March as – critics note — crime has continued to climb.

That frustration is keenly felt by Beam, a Chicagoan who runs a call center and manages the soul musician Adam Ness. Told he couldn’t sue the CTA for his medical expenses, the has started a GoFundeMe campaign that has raised over $3,000 so far.

"We all know it’s unacceptable," he said. "But the fact is, the city isn’t doing anything about it. … It most certainly seems like the people currently responsible for the situation are not doing an adequate job."

More unarmed guards – and more crime

The year began with the number of police officers patrolling the CTA at a five-year low.

The Public Transportation and Transit Security units had just 138 officers patrolling the entire system in February, according to data compiled by the city’s inspector general.

That was the smallest number since August 2017, the earliest that monthly data has been made available. This month, there were 145 officers assigned to those units.

By comparison, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Police Department has more than 200 officers patrolling its system and announced plans earlier this year to hire an additional 65 officers.

On March 9 — after a series of violent attacks — Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Police Supt. David Brown held a news conference at the Chicago/State Red Line stop, where a group of teenagers had been beaten and robbed two people days earlier.

They announced plans to hire more unarmed guards and to shuffle police resources "to better address shifts in crime patterns" – measures publicly criticized by a transit union chief who called on the agency to form its own police force, as Dallas and other cities like New York City and Atlanta have.

Also at the news conference was CTA President Dorval Carter Jr., who sought to reassure riders at a time when officials were working to draw business and tourism to a city still recovering from pandemic-induced shutdowns.

"I want you to know that we are aware of how some of your riding experiences have changed and that we are committed to making it better," he said.

But just seven police officers were added to the department transit units.  And then a rash of attacks last month reignited concerns about how safe the CTA is.

Three days after Beam was attacked, 15-year old Darin Mcnair was stabbed to death when he and six other people tried to rob a man on a Red Line train near 63rd Street.

During a news conference Monday, Brown said additional officers from outside the department’s transit units are being tapped to shore up deployment along the CTA system.

Assigning cops to these "tiered deployments" has become a necessity for a department struggling to retain and recruit members. Officers have had their days off canceled and have been sent to work in unfamiliar surroundings, including in high-crime areas.

Police officials aim to have 131 police officers working on the transit system each day, according to Brown, who claimed new recruits will eventually be assigned to the CTA units.

"All the neighborhoods need more people too," he acknowledged. "So it’s just not a one-off thing. If it were just the CTA, it would be much easier to solve."

Chief of Patrol Brian McDermott told the Sun-Times that officers under his command are also required to check rail stations on their beat during every shift.

And district commanders conduct roll calls at CTA platforms, and patrol officers carry out drills to check response times on the CTA, he said.

The officers are aided by over 32,000 surveillance cameras. CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said those cameras have played a key role in helping detectives investigate crimes, including the attack on Beam.

Five suspects were arrested at the scene and charged with felonies. They all had previous convictions, including 52-year-old Vernon Holman, a five-time felon and convicted murderer who was stabbed during the botched robbery.

The CTA has more than 250 unarmed guards assigned to the system and hopes to add around 50 more. But the agency is having trouble filling the vacancies, like many other transit agencies across the country.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, which represents some transit employees, has called for the creation of CTA’s own police department — which it disbanded in 1980. The union has also lobbied to bring back conductors, who were pulled off trains starting in 1997.

Hosinski contends that doing so would take several years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

"This partnership with CPD provides CTA the support of other policing resources, like detectives and the Strategic Decision Support Center, which CPD launched in 2020, featuring smart-policing technology and full connectivity to CTA’s extensive security-camera network," Hosinski said.

"Further, this partnership not only benefits CTA riders but the city as a whole, something that cannot be achieved with an independent policing unit," she added.

Even before the pandemic upended normal life, city leaders were struggling to make the transit system safer. In late January 2020, just a week after the city’s first coronavirus case was found, Lightfoot called a three-year surge in CTA crime "totally, fundamentally unacceptable" and vowed to get a handle on it.

After asking SWAT officers to start riding trains, interim Police Supt. Charlie Beck announced plans for a crackdown that February. He added more transit cops, assigned four detectives to solve CTA crimes and built a strategic deployment center specifically for mass transit.

Bolstered by 50 moonlighting officers paid by the CTA, the number of cops assigned to transit units swelled from 187 that month to 237 in April 2020, the most in recent years.

But then ridership fell and Brown took control of the department and began thinning those units.

‘We need political will.’

Julia Gerasimenko, advocacy manager with Active Transportation Alliance, said the safety of public transit shouldn’t fall solely on CTA and needs to be addressed throughout other city and state agencies.

"When it comes to crime on the CTA, it is not like CTA is somehow immune from other societal ills in this city," Gerasimenko said. "Other city agencies need to step up, and we need political will that doesn’t only fund public safety but also increases funding for social services, public health and bolsters other safety net programs."

Gerasimenko said crime has become more prevalent across the country and in other large transit agencies in the wake of the pandemic, which further destabilized already hard-hit communities. It’s more proof, she said, that increasing punitive measures does little to curtail crime or violence.

She said the introduction of more unarmed security guards at the CTA’s train stations is puzzling because there’s little evidence they’re effective.

Rather than spending $71 million on private security — with no oversight for the training of guards and no obligation to prove its value — she called for an investment in "transit ambassadors" who would work as conductors but wouldn’t be unionized.

"Frankly, we are not seeing these unarmed security guards resolve any conflict other than kicking unhoused people off a train," Gerasimenko said. "They are not seen at platforms where violent crime is happening, they are not trained in de-escalation or even customer service.

"This was a policy made without public input or transparency."