Dealing with threats on public transit
February 25, 2015 5:13 PM   Subscribe

A few days ago I had one of the worst experiences of my life on public transit, and would like to get some feedback on how I should have handled it, and what other people have done in similar situations.

This was on a light rail line going to downtown. Right when getting on, the guy I'll call John immediately gets into it with another boarding passenger. Something about being supposedly brushed or touched, they argue a bit then the other boarder moved as far away from John as possible. Train is standing room only though not totally packed, I'm a few feet away from John. Normal looking guy, not obviously homeless or otherwise disordered looking.

Almost immediately, he starts in on me. Staring at me, saying how I look like a cop, "I'm going to smash your fucking face", "going to fuck you in the ass", "gonna fuck you up bitch" etc, kept it up for about ten minutes. Those were the major themes. This was all said in fairly low tones, and mostly into a (non-working or powered off, I think) cell phone. It got worse and louder if I glanced in this guy's direction. Others on the train mostly ignore the guy, with a few shooting him looks but nobody saying anything. He ultimately left the train without anything physical happening.

I silently freaked out the entire time, in the end I tried to look as normal and nonplussed as possible, and did not move away. Would you have angrily confronted the guy? Tried to calmly reason with him? Immediately push the panic button system in the train car? Call 911? Something else?

Also as a sub-question for people in LA (this was on the blue line heading into downtown), have you seen those emergency buttons used and did the driver and cops respond promptly?
posted by aerotive to Travel & Transportation around Los Angeles, CA (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think refusing to engage was probably the best thing you could have done. Any other acknowledgement might have led to him escalating to violence.

If possible, I might have tried (if I thought of it) to take a cell phone picture of him to provide with a report to the transit cops/transit authority.

But I probably wouldn't have thought of it.
posted by suelac at 5:19 PM on February 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

That sounds awful, I'm so sorry that happened to you. Definitely would not have engaged the guy whether calmly or angrily. I think I would have gotten up and changed seats or cars to get away. If he followed me, I would totally have hit the panic button.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:20 PM on February 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think you did exactly the right thing. This guy was unhinged and you did not engage him in any way.

The only thing perhaps you could have done is move away, or try to make eye contact or small talk with another passenger for support.

Basically nobody antagonised him and he got off without anything physical happening. To me, that's a good outcome although it was a scary experience.
posted by Youremyworld at 5:21 PM on February 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

Yeah, it sucks to have to put up with abuse, but I think confronting him would have been a bad idea.
posted by Fister Roboto at 5:21 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was once on a bus in Oakland where something similar happened. Crazy person just latched onto me and threatened me. Crowded bus. Couldn't move. Also on the bus was the president of the nonprofit org where I was working at the time. Crazy Person started to shout at him as well.

What I did: mutter at person to "take their meds" -- shame on me, really. Didn't stop the raving and probably made it worse. I was angry, but I should have risen above.

What the president of the org did: hopped off the bus.

posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 5:25 PM on February 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

You did the right thing by not engaging. The next step would be to remove yourself from the situation.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:30 PM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Next time, call 911 and give the operator a description of the guy, what he is saying, and your location. Actually, you could still make a report now.
posted by sninctown at 5:30 PM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've heard that people with schizophrenia are sometimes advised to talk into a cell phone, if they feel the need to respond to voices/something/anything. And also that this advice can sometimes backfire, though it's easy to imagine that it could be an effective strategy in some situations.

You did the right thing. No response, you can't hear anything, everything is normal, what's that thing over there, look intently/concernedly at it.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:33 PM on February 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

No, you did the right thing. Who knows what this guy was capable of. If you were super uncomfortable, you can move to a different part of the train and start talking to a friendly looking person, "That guy over there is being super creepy to me and he's freaking me out, can you kind of hang with me until my stop?" Most people will be happy to engage you until either your stop, their stop or the creeper's stop.

I did this for a lady on the tube one night in London.

If you ever see someone getting harrassed on public transport, you can go up to the person being victimized and say, "Hey! Come sit with me."

We've got to look out for each other.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:34 PM on February 25, 2015 [22 favorites]

Yeah, I think you did the right thing. I also think you could have reported his ass to a representative from the train once you got off (or even to the police). Not sure they would have done anything, but it might have made you feel better.

I would not have tried to take his photo. Basically when someone is acting as unpredictably as that, you have to assume they could escalate to physical violence if provoked and if they even thought you were trying to photograph them, I imagine it would provoke.

The one time this happened to me recently, I turned to the person next to me, who seemed a young middle-class guy, who had been giving me sympathetic looks, and just started making small talk. "Do you take this train often? It's been pretty wet lately, huh? Oh, you own that cafe? I've been there." It was comforting to make that connection with someone, and it helped me ignore the crazy guy's threats. It also meant I had someone to say fairly loudly to as I got off, "Well, this is my stop. My husband will be waiting for me just up ahead there," which made me think the crazy guy was less likely to follow me. (The non-crazy guy actually got off with me too to make sure I was okay, and to reassure(?!) me that the crazy dude often rode that train and threatened and swore at women all the time, so it wasn't some sort of personal thing.)

The other things you can do if you feel like it won't escalate things is either
(a) call a friend on your cellphone for a chat. Having someone on the line, even though you presumably can't tell them why you are really calling, can give you more security, especially if you at least mention which train you are on and where.
(b) alternatively, pre-dial 911 into your phone and keep your finger near the call button just in case. That way if something happens you can get the authorities on the line immediately rather than having to fumble for your phone and dial in the number in the midst of some sort of violence.
posted by lollusc at 5:38 PM on February 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

So sorry. This has happened to me multiple times. First, you are right not to engage. You never know If people who do this are mentally ill or violent or both. Second, if you can get off, do so and wait for the next train. If the man follows you, which did happen to me once, duck back on to a different car and try to lose him. If that doesn't worn stay in the station of it's crowded or immediately go to a crowded area. Never get off the train if there is no crowded area nearby. As soon as possible, when you are not stuck next to the man physically, call a trusted person and tell them something that makes them understand right away that something is wrong, and also tells them where you are. For example, call someone and say "Hey, I'm at the station, are you outside? Oh, which corner?" Even though the person is not coming to greet you. This accomplishes 3 things. Your trusted person knows you are in trouble at that location and the scary person hopefully thinks you will have company very soon.
If you get followed, or you have to walk any distance and don't feel safe, you can do two things. Predial 911 and be ready to press call and hold your phone in your pocket. And hold your keys between your fingers in your pocket so if you get grabbed you have a modest weapon. I have never had to do this and I hope I never will.
posted by Cygnet at 6:01 PM on February 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the kind and thoughtful responses everyone, very very very much appreciated. The advice to call a friend and keeping the line open is something I will try and keep in mind should this ever happen again.
posted by aerotive at 6:03 PM on February 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

The only other advice I'd give is that if things ever turn physical, don't hesitate to look at someone on the bus and explicitly say "I need you to call 911" , "I need you to tell the driver there is an emergency" "I need you to help me"

Otherwise people can and will "not get involved", you need to make it personal sometimes to get help.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 6:09 PM on February 25, 2015 [38 favorites]

Yeah, something like this happened to me once on the subway—lady sitting next to me starting ranting, and eventually I realized it was directed at me. I ignored her until she hit me with her book, and then I looked at her and said, "Don't touch me." (I probably should have just gotten stood up and moved away, but I was just kind of frozen there while boiling inside.) Anyway, at that point I was getting sympathetic looks from everyone around, and the person sitting on my other side stood up so I could slide into his seat.

It was good to know that my fellow passengers had my back.
posted by the_blizz at 6:18 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry you had to deal with this, but thank you so much for posting your question because it prompted me to find this from the Metro Security page:
Know the location of emergency phones and memorize the Metro Sheriff’s Hotline: 888.950.SAFE (7233).
I've put the number in my phone, and while you might not have been able to call in this instance I think it's good to have it on hand.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:29 PM on February 25, 2015

When my son was mentally ill he sometimes behaved in just the way you experienced. It's very frightening, and really sucks, and you were right to stay disengaged.

During one episode we called 911 and the police took him to the Behavioral Health Unit of the local hospital, who refused to admit him without a referral. So we went with him to the social services where we had an interview. The interviewer was not prepared to refer to the BHU until my son began describing how he was going to kill the interviewer. Mental illness can be very hard to its sufferers and to anyone near them, and it's a shame on our society that treatment is so hard to get.

Our son's symptoms were named "schizo-affective disorder"; when he was in the grip of the disease staying disengaged was the only way to calm things down.
posted by anadem at 6:40 PM on February 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

As others have said, definitely do not engage. You never know if someone is hallucinating, and for all you know, the color of your shirt could be what sets them off.

As a female, I personally would've gotten off at the next stop - and either walked into the next car, or waited for the next train. Getting to my destination a few minutes late is well worth the peace of mind it brings.

Anecdotally, I myself recently witnessed a scary altercation here on the blue line heading from DC into Alexandria, VA. A homeless guy was sitting down with his many bags, and rummaging through one of them. A crumpled piece of paper laneded on the floor, and a woman sitting across from him said "Oh, you dropped something."

Big mistake. The guy launched into a tirade of how he didn't lose it, it was something he didn't need anymore. He started screaming about people who don't mind their own business, threw more trash on the ground, and became angrier by the minute. Fortunately for the woman, she was sitting in front of a tough-looking guy with a military-type buzz cut. He tapped her on the shoulder, and once he started talking to her, the crazy guy more or less backed off.

My heart was pounding the entire time, because even though I was sitting several feet away, I had to pretend to mind my own business and avoid eye contact, while at the same time remain vigilant in case he decided to whip out a gun or knife.

I got off at the next stop, as it was my real destination - but I also noticed one businessman who exited, and promptly went into the next car.

Never engage, avoid, and escape (assuming of course, that the station is well-lit, with other people milling around). That's what I do. Good luck, stay vigilant and be safe.
posted by invisible ink at 6:58 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've used the conductor button in NY when a psychotic woman continued to scream at me for reading a newspaper even after I changed my seat. He spoke to her at the next stop and she left.
posted by brujita at 7:53 PM on February 25, 2015

Apparently you should never make eye contact. This can actually set some people off, in an environment where everyone else is ignoring them, you become their target simply by acknowledging them.
posted by grassbottles at 8:55 PM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]



I said "what the hell?" to someone like this once after they yelled something in my face, and after yelling a bunch of crazy stuff at me.

I got punched in the throat so hard that i should have gone to the hospital, it was sore and bruised for weeks. It went from yelling to violence so fast i couldn't even move a tiny bit before i got hit. I'm thankful that's all they did.

Nowadays, if I'm by myself i would just get off the train/bus, i'll only stick around if i'm with someone and they're ok with it and neither of us want to wait around for another one. I've had some crappy experiences where it was really late, or it was the last bus and i was just fucked... but overall yea, i just get off.

Honestly agreeing with all the advice to not even look at the person. I dealt with someone else like this recently in what i'd consider a "successful" way in that nothing bad happened other than them saying stuff by just staring at the floor or an empty seat the entire time.
posted by emptythought at 9:07 PM on February 25, 2015

From your description, the guy sounds like he was either out of his mind on drugs or just out of his mind. A danger to himself and others. If somebody else told you this story, you would not say, "Yeah, you really should have argued with this random crazy person, and maybe gotten into a fight. That's what you should've done."
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:58 AM on February 26, 2015

Lots of good advice to not engage. Only makes it worse and possibly escalates the situation. I would not give a free pass though. It should be reported in some manner if for no other reason but to create a record of bad behavior in the event there needs to be a history.
Bottom line, protect yourself, then maybe pro actively protect others.
Safe travels to you.
posted by a3matrix at 7:56 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, DEFINITELY don't engage. I made the same mistake as emptythought when I was followed in a Metro station in Paris last year by a young guy who didn't look homeless, but seemed to have some serious anger-management issues. I initially tried to ignore the guy as he followed me but he then stopped right in front of me as I was about to get on a train. I think I finally got annoyed and said something like "what the f***?" (in English, I don't speak much French), big mistake. He suddenly got this crazy look in his eyes and started screaming insults at me - I don't scare easily but I was convinced that I was going to get attacked. Fortunately a train showed up shortly afterward - the guy kept screaming at me after I got on but fortunately decided not to follow me onto the train.

I also think following other people's advice and engaging a person if they're being harassed is an excellent idea. Sadly, in my case all the people nearby on the platform (and on the train) seemed to do their best to ignore me - don't be those people.
posted by photo guy at 11:33 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

That sounds horrible. You handled it perfectly because you left the scene 100% intact.

Congratulations on keeping your cool. You should be proud of yourself.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:07 PM on February 26, 2015

I'm so sorry this happened to you. I've had several instances like this on the subway and every single time no one around me said anything. It's upsetting but I can also understand peoples desire to stay away from crazy/aggressive people.
I did once stand up to them and stood my ground. It was a teenage boy and he ended up punching me in the head, so despite being someone who always calls people out and stands up for myself, I've learned that it's best to wait it out. So many terrible things have happened to here because they confronted someone. You never know if they have a weapon or if they're going to try to hurt you.
Again I'm so sorry. I was so shaken the day I was punched and it took me a few days to start to forget about it.
posted by shesbenevolent at 12:35 PM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I asked a friend who's a deputy sheriff, and he agreed that calling the LASD Metro Transit division's a good plan (888) 950-SAFE(7233).

LASD Metro also has their very own app, TransitWatch. You can send an incident message directly to deputies with it, and dispatch will help the ones on your train get to you. Oh, and don't bother with the LASD Twitter or Facebook, because they're not monitored 24/7.

There's also special phones at every entrance to the Metro system, and on the Red line, every turnstile and ticket vending machine, for when you're not on the train/bus.

If you haven't already, please report what happened to you, even though it was a few days ago.
posted by culfinglin at 1:12 PM on February 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I agree with everyone who said you should not engage. I was on the Max train here in Portland once and a group of teenage girls were verbally harassing another teen girl. A woman near me said "Hey, knock it off. Leave her alone."

One of the teens immediately took off her flip flops and started smacking the woman in the face repeatedly, then the train stopped at the next station and the entire group got off laughing and making crass comments.

Ever since then I mind my own business (unless something truly bad or violent was happening, of course).
posted by tacodave at 4:24 PM on February 26, 2015

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