Do trains carry crime?

Some residents of Gloucester County worry that a proposed new light-rail line between Camden and Glassboro will bring an increase in crime to the small towns along the route.

In Burlington County, Sheriff Jean Stanfield seeks a $187,071 federal grant to combat gang crime along the River Line, the five-year-old light-rail line between Camden and Trenton. She also seeks some of the $13.4 million in federal stimulus funding that Gov. Corzine is allocating for antigang projects.

"I'm not saying the River Line is bad - it has done wonderful things for the towns - but trains can be a vehicle for criminal activity, just like highways," Stanfield said. "For trains and highways, the potential is there for them to be misused."

She said gang activity had increased along the River Line: Nine towns reported gang crime in 2007, compared with five in 2004. Stanfield wants the federal money to pay police overtime for 48 law enforcement operations over two years, boosting patrols on and along the rail line.

In her grant application, Stanfield cited local police reports of an assault and robbery, a drug deal and a gang fight, all connected to "perpetrators from Camden who used the light rail."

The latest FBI crime statistics show that violent crime in most River Line towns has fallen since the train service started, and that property crime has risen in half of them.

Of the 12 cities and towns with River Line stations, 10 reported lower levels of violent crime in 2007, the most recent year for which numbers are available, than in 2004, the year the trains began operating.

Only Palmyra and Beverly had higher violent-crime rates than in 2004, and even there, the latest rates were lower than in the early years of the decade.

With property crimes, the trend was mixed. Pennsauken, Palmyra, Riverton, Delanco, Burlington, and Florence had an increase in the rate of property crime from 2004 to 2007. The rate has dropped in Camden, Cinnaminson, Riverside, Beverly, and Trenton, and there has been almost no change in Bordentown.

In Palmyra, where the River Line parallels Broad Street through the heart of downtown, merchants are divided over a connection between crime and the train.

"I do believe it brings more crime to towns," said Carol Atzert, manager of Grayson Flowers. "Sometimes I see four or five police officers over there at the station.

"More people are coming up here from Camden. Palmyra used to be so quiet. It seems like so much change. It scares me for it to be here. . . . You have these people walking the quiet neighborhoods.

"There's more vandalism and cars being broken into."

A couple of doors down, at the Palmyra Hometown Pharmacy, druggist Russ Beauchmin said the train's benefits outweighed the risks.

"We haven't had any problem with it," he said. "I think if somebody's going to commit a crime, the train's too slow."

His only robbery was two years ago, when a man came into the store, grabbed cash from the register, and fled in a waiting car.

"If trains bring crime, so do cars," Beauchmin said.

Palmyra Police Lt. John Lippincott said that although it can be difficult to pinpoint the source of crime, "we do believe that there is a certain amount of criminal element that does come from that rail line."

He said some suspects arrested in daytime burglaries told police that they came to town on the train and then sought out houses to burglarize.

And there were quality-of-life issues, such as people urinating on train platforms, he said.

"That's not to say it's been a total negative . . . the trains appear to be pretty full, with people taking the train to work or to school."

The burden of policing the line falls primarily on local officers, he said, even though NJ Transit police are on some of the trains. "We don't always see a high presence from them."

Lippincott said the 16-officer Palmyra department was seeking a federal grant to hire two more officers, which would allow more patrols near the train platforms.

In Riverton, resident Larry Fields took a break from raking in front of his house to ponder the issue.

"It really hasn't brought more crime. I think it actually helps the town," he said, looking at the tracks half a block away. "The convenience outweighs everything."

His wife, Cindy, said a skateboard and bicycle had been stolen from their gated yard, "but I don't know whether that has anything to do with the train."

Riverside Police Chief Paul Tursi said some criminals now used the train to get to his town "who might have used other means before" and that his officers have dealt with disorderly behavior at the town's station.

He noted that the River Line sometimes makes it easier to track down suspects who may try to get away by rail.

"We check at the train station . . . it's like a funnel for us," Tursi said. He attributed the drop in violent and property crimes in Riverside since 2004 to more frequent and more visible police patrols.

"The light rail has very good transit police," Tursi said. "The people who ride it feel very safe."

Passenger Tyrone Blaylock said he had been riding the River Line for two years to get to work in Pennsauken from his home in Camden.

"I feel safe; there haven't been any problems," he said as he got off the train at the Pennsauken station by Route 73. "The security is pretty good."

Criminologist Jon'a Meyer said a rail line could be a conduit for criminals and crime victims.

"All of these modern conveniences that improve our lives can also put us at risk," said Meyer, director of the graduate program in criminal justice at the Camden campus of Rutgers University.

She said crime experts sometimes see a "subway effect" at busy train stations, where pickpockets and gropers take advantage of the crowds.

The River Line can provide easy transportation "not just for people going from Camden to other areas, but also people from other areas coming to Camden to buy drugs," she said. Police studies have shown that about 80 percent of drug buyers in Camden are from out of town, she said.

Meyer said the fact that River Line tickets expire two hours after purchase may deter criminals: "That way they can't just get on and ride all day."

But Meyer said crime concerns shouldn't scare off riders.

"We shouldn't be slaves to our fear of crime," she said. "If we did that, we would have shut down every airport in the country after 9/11.

"The benefit the train brings outweighs the chance that an occasional bad guy will use it."

In Woodbury, a planned stop on the Glassboro line where Gov. Corzine unveiled plans last week for the new light-rail route, Police Chief Reed Merinuk predicted that the proposed train would be a boon for the town.

"It'll be absolutely great for the city," Merinuk said. "We need to get more pedestrians back. We need to redevelop the downtown. This is really a step in the right direction."

Merinuk said that "if criminals find a route to use, I can't stop that. But we'll try to be as proactive as possible to make sure they don't stop in Woodbury."

He said police would be a visible presence in town and residents would be involved in programs like Town Watch to keep an eye on their neighborhoods.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.