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L.A. tries to rid its public transit of sexual predators
BY CAITLIN LIU
Los Angeles Times Service

LOS ANGELES - Why, Tom Brown asked himself, is that creepy guy standing on the bus when there are empty places to sit, and why is he rocking his lower body back and forth into the shoulder of that seated teenage girl?

In his backward baseball cap, baggy T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, Brown might be mistaken for a low-budget tourist.

But packed under his beach-casual garb is a gun, and in his pocket his Los Angeles Police Department badge -- which Brown flashed at the sullen man, a 35-year-old cook, before hauling him away in handcuffs and booking him on suspicion of lewd acts on a minor.

In crowded mass-transit systems, female riders have long suffered the torment of getting pinched, fondled or rubbed against by sleazy men. For the last three years, a unit within the 350-officer Metropolitan Transportation Authority police force has been trying to put a stop to it.

A DIFFERENT BREED

Brown and five colleagues were originally dispatched to catch pickpockets. But the undercover officers soon noticed behavior similar to that of pickpockets in a different breed of criminals.

These characters -- virtually all men -- also stared at other riders, then aggressively moved in to make bodily contact. Like pickpockets, they focused at the level where wallets are typically tucked or purses worn.

It helped them that female passengers, while visibly agitated, often did nothing to stop them.

This year, the Pickpocket Detail, as it's still called, is making four sex-offender busts for every pickpocket arrest. In its history, it has made 140 arrests for sexual offenses -- 62 so far this year, 44 last year and 21 the year before that.

Los Angeles is not alone in being concerned about transit perverts. Subways in South Korea have broadcast warnings against seamy behavior. Train operators in Tokyo, where riders are often crammed together so tightly that they can hardly breathe, have set aside cars for female riders to create a groper-free zone.

In New York City, the subway's 3,000 patrol officers made more than 400 sex-crime arrests last year, 285 of them involving incidents of public lewdness.

There are no special crackdowns in New York on transit perverts per se, but the conduct is discouraged through a ''strong uniformed presence'' on station platforms, said Deputy Chief Ronald Rowland of the transit bureau.

'CLARK KENT' CASE

Police believe that keeping track of suspicious characters can pay off.

Take the case of the offender officers dubbed ''Clark Kent.'' A few months ago, an officer saw the man, wearing thick black-framed glasses, grope a woman on a bus. But the Spanish-speaking victim refused to cooperate with authorities -- who needed her statements to press charges -- so an arrest couldn't be made.

Officers soon began having ''Clark Kent'' sightings. They watched him park his car at a supermarket parking lot just so he could take buses up and down the same street. A couple of months after the fondling incident, an officer came upon ''Clark Kent'' rubbing up against a female passenger, and he was finally arrested.

THE CHARGES

Most of the men wind up being charged with misdemeanor sexual battery, if the victim is an adult, or felony lewd conduct, if the victim is under 18.

The defendants usually end up pleading out, with sentences ranging from probation for first-time offenders, who are usually sent to a treatment program, to prison for repeat offenders or felons.

''Undercover work has a very important place in policing work of this nature,'' said Greg Hull, director of operations, safety and security programs for Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association.

Research shows that many, though not all, of those obsessed by lecherous touching also engage in other deviant sexual behavior, such as exhibitionism, voyeurism or pedophilia.

When booking suspects, officers often find a history of criminal activity such as rape, child molestation or peeping. Outstanding arrest warrants sometimes turn up for such offenses as felony lewd acts.

'The `bumper and grinder' . . . that's a person who we can have an 'Amber alert' on three years from now,'' said Paul Lennon, the MTA's chief of security and law enforcement, referring to the system that has been used repeatedly in recent weeks, interrupting broadcasts and using digital freeway signs to post urgent messages about child abductions. ``Take them off the street before they escalate.''

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