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How will LA Metro address crime? By extending policing contracts and hiring more security

LA Daily News 3/24/2023 Steve Scauzillo, Los Angeles Daily News
An LAPD officer patrols Union Station Tuesday, June 28, 2022. LA Metro Board on March 23, 2023 voted to extend contracts for law enforcement on the system with LAPD, Long Beach PD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. © David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News/TNS An LAPD officer patrols Union Station Tuesday, June 28, 2022. LA Metro Board on March 23, 2023 voted to extend contracts for law enforcement on the system with LAPD, Long Beach PD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

LA Metro passengers concerned about rising crime, drug use and bus driver assaults will see mostly the status quo as far as policing the system, after the transit agency board on Thursday, March 23 extended law enforcement contracts for up to three more years.

One change, however, involved approval to hire 48 additional Metro Transit Security Officers to patrol high-crime bus routes and train stations in an effort to catch the criminals, deter crime and eventually bring back fearful riders to the sprawling public transit system with the goal of easing mind-numbing traffic on overburdened roads and freeways.

The vote came after considerable debate among Metro’s 13 board members, some who said new contracts with the three law enforcement agencies should wait until the board approves them at a future meeting. That motion was narrowly defeated.

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The three agencies who currently patrol the seven rail lines, numerous train stations and 2,200 buses in Metro’s system will continue doing so within their jurisdictions. They are: Los Angeles Police Department, Long Beach Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

While many board members agreed that these law enforcement departments needed to upgrade their performance, they voted to extend the contracts because they had no other choice.

“Crime is a problem. Perception of crime is a problem,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor and Metro board member Janice Hahn. “We are giving them another chance. Let’s start anew and have these three agencies work for our ridership.”

Serious crime on trains, buses and at stations has risen 24% in 2022 over the year prior. The transit agency also experienced a 99% increase in year-over-year complaints of passengers possessing or using illegal drugs. Crime on the rail system increased 25% in January 2023 over the prior year, Metro reported.

County Supervisor and board member Kathryn Barger said constituent emails and phone calls talk of fear of becoming a victim on a Metro train or bus. “At night, I will not get on our system because I am afraid,” Barger said. “I do believe law enforcement plays a role.”

She said Metro has given mixed signals to police and sheriff deputies. Some have said to back off arresting fare evaders because the majority cited are Black and Latino and this represents discriminatory practices, while others have said more active patrols are needed to make the system safer.

“We are purchasing the services. We should accurately outline what our expectations are,” Barger said.

The board will get more information on the feasibility of creating its own Metro Transit Police Department in May. But board members said that could take several years and they couldn’t leave a gap in law enforcement until then.

Hahn was in favor of exploring a Metro transit police and eliminating the need for contracting with existing law enforcement. She compared it to separate, specific law enforcement agencies currently patrolling at LAX and at the Ports of Los Angeles.

Numerous speakers representing low-income riders who make up the bulk of bus ridership opposed armed law enforcement on the system. Many wanted Metro to divert about $200 million a year spent on law enforcement to alternate services, such as transit social workers and more Metro Transit Ambassadors.

“The police, including these three contractors, are not meeting riders needs. Let’s address the root causes with social workers, bathroom attendants and more ambassadors,” said Alfonso Directo, advocacy director for the Alliance For Community Transit (ACT LA).

The ACLU’s L.A. Chapter pointed to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) hiring elevator attendants, which has reduced illicit activity in elevators at stations. People smoking crack have been reported taking place in the elevators at the Lake Avenue L Line Station in Pasadena, for example.

Julian Lamb with the advocacy group Bus Riders Union, said Metro will only add to structural racism if it continues with police and sheriff contracts. “We need to implement structural justice by defunding the police and redirecting those funds toward social issues,” he said.

Metro Board Chairman and Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian said the board is committed to making the system safer. “The board is resolved to addressing the issue of public safety, fear, and crime on our system. That will take some time,” he said, adding that more Transit Security Officers (TSOs) will help.

Metro has 213 TSOs and will reach 261 by June 20, said Patrick Chandler, Metro spokesman.

One of the first assignments of the additional security officers will be to ride along with regular law enforcement on the 10 most crime-plagued bus lines to reduce assaults on bus operators, which have risen by 37.4% in 2022 over the previous year, Metro reported.

Bus operator assaults have climbed from 80 in 2018 to 158 in 2022, nearly doubling.

In a survey conducted from Feb. 22, 2022 through March 21, 2022 of 588 bus drivers, only one-third answered they would recommend the job to family and friends. Also, 98% noted concerns with being a bus operator, the survey found.

One driver of the 207 bus at South Western Avenue in Los Angeles was shot at in January by a sniper shooting from a nearby building. He reported cracks in his window and windshield on the driver’s side but was unhurt, Metro reported. Most of the incidents involved people spitting on drivers or throwing bottles at them, according to assaults reported for January 2023.

Whittier City Councilman and Metro board member Fernando Dutra supported the need for better security by quoting from the bus operators survey: “With officers on the bus, riders behave and don’t start any problems. It’s a safer environment for me to drive the bus and for the passengers,” said a driver that was not named.

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