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MBTA reports on rise for aggravated assaults

Apple-picking has started to become a fruitless pursuit for thieves on the T — leading to fewer thefts of iPhones and other expensive gadgets on the region’s transit system. At the same time, aggravated assaults are becoming more common on the T even as less serious assaults have decreased, and officials say they don’t quite know why.

The crime statistics published by the MBTA Transit Police Department this week compared the number of reported incidents on subways, buses, commuter rail trains, and inside commuter rail trains from the first six months of 2013 with the same time period this year. Overall, the number of serious crimes decreased slightly, from 395 in 2013 to 384 in 2014, even as total ridership increased 2.2 percent, to 199.3 million trips taken from Jan. 1 until the end of June.

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Of most concern to officials was the fact that aggravated assault — assault with any kind of weapon — was up by 38 percent, an increase from 48 to 66 incidents during the same period. MBTA Transit Police Chief Paul MacMillan said the agency is seeking to determine the reason for the increase, but a broad trend has been hard to find. The assaults are not concentrated in a particular area or on a particular transit line, he said, which makes it difficult for officers to understand how to prevent them.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t a particular pattern to those. They aren’t something easily traced back to a group of people,” MacMillan said.

“They tend to be more spontaneous, just as they are for the simple assaults, and it’s more difficult to get a handle on those.”

During the same period, simple assaults — attacks without any kind of weapon— fell by 22 percent, with 70 fewer incidents reported this year.

One of those incidents occurred in March, when three people were beaten on a Red Line train arriving at Broadway Station.

The incident, which was caught on camera, started from a verbal dispute and erupted into punching and kicking.

MacMillan said officers are trying to reduce the number of these kinds of attacks.

“They are a concern for us, and we’re trying to address them how we can,” MacMillan said.

Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board , a nonprofit that provides oversight to the T, said it is hard to ascertain whether the rise may just be a blip. Still, he said, the increase could be a sign that the T must devote more resources to raising awareness about assaults.

“These things do fluctuate from year to year,” Regan said. “There are years when the T does very well on different fronts, and those years tend to coincide with public awareness campaigns.”

Those types of campaigns may be one of the reasons why robberies on the T are down by 28 percent from last year — a trend that officials attribute to greater awareness about smartphone thefts and improved technology to help track down repeat offenders.

MacMillan said the agency has worked to alert passengers to risks of having their cellphones in the open, especially as they leave a train or bus. Customers are heeding those warnings about “Apple-picking,” he said.

According to 2012 survey from Lookout, a mobile security tech company, Boston is the 10th-worst city when it comes to the chances of having your smartphone stolen.

Regan, a frequent rider, said he has seen the effects of the campaign, even on his daily commute.

“I’ve noticed fewer and fewer people doing what I’m doing, having their phone out while they’re riding,” Regan said.

And new locking abilities on smartphones, which render the gadgets inoperable once they fall into the hands of robbers, have started to deter would-be thieves from ripping an iPhone out of the hands of a fellow passenger, MacMillan said.

“That’s been helpful in dissuading people from taking these phones,” MacMillan said. “They become useless once they’re stolen.”

That technology may become more prevalent in coming years: Legislation was introduced last spring that would require all smartphones manufactured or sold in the United States to have a kill switch.

Additionally, MacMillan said, the T’s expanding network of surveillance cameras has helped identify perpetrators, which aids in preventing repeat offenders.

But there’s bad news, MacMillan added. There’s a new iPhone due out later this year. New iPhones, he said, tend to bring about a subsequent uptick in robberies.

“We’re always mindful of the next new technology coming out that’s expensive,” he said.

Overall, the number of thefts has remained the same, but in the past month, bike thefts have skyrocketed. From July 1 to Tuesday, there were 54 reported thefts of bikes from T property — more than double than in the same period last year, when 22 bikes were reported stolen.

“More people are using bicycles to get to the T,” MacMillan said. “We’ve kind of reached our capacity to secure them.”

Officials are testing options to cut down on the bike thefts — advising people not to park their bikes at T stations overnight, and to use more expensive, heavy-duty locks to secure their bikes. They have conducted several plainclothes stings, arresting perpetrators caught in the act.

And new bike facilities are being built, even as bike parking capacity at T stations has increased by 50 percent in the last two years, said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. Five bike cages are scheduled to open at T stations in the next two months.

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com.
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