LA Metro Will Explore Ways To Replace Armed Policing On Public Transit

Los Angeles Police Department officers patrol Union Station in this 2017 file photo. (Courtesy L.A. Metro)

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After a couple of hours of public comment and soul-searching debate, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board of directors voted to form a new committee to study ways to reduce armed law enforcement on the county's transit system.

The new Transit Public Safety Advisory Committee will work with a coalition of community leaders to "re-envision transit safety," according to the motion. That includes examining ways to scale back policing in favor of social workers and mental health professionals, as well as unarmed "transit ambassadors," who would be deployed on buses and trains, and at Metro stations.

The decision comes after nearly a month of sustained local and national protests against police brutality and systemic racism, fueled by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans killed by police.


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Metro board member and L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin, who co-authored the motion, acknowledged what he called "a moment of collective epiphany" about systemic racism, including in public transit and law enforcement.

"We have a long history of passengers complaining about racial profiling or racial bias in Metro transit policing, primarily from young people who are Black or indigenous people of color," he said. Bonin noted a fear expressed by many riders — the majority of whom are Latino or Black — of a "transit-to-prison pipeline."

Riders' safety should be the priority, Bonin said, but the new committee's goal is to better understand what safety means to those riders and how to meet their needs.

"What we need to shift from is the instinctive response that the primary response to all issues of safety is law enforcement," he said.

The motion, co-authored by fellow board members Janice Hahn, Hilda Solis, Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker and Eric Garcetti, suggests boosting care-based approaches for many common interactions on the system, including:

  • An unarmed response model for non-violent crimes and code of conduct violations.
  • "Greater community stewardship of transit spaces," like allowing street vending on some Metro properties
  • Expanding and better promoting fare discount programs
  • Improving outreach and connecting homeless people to services
  • Enacting the "Universal Blue Light" program to expand emergency call boxes on the system

Five different entities patrol Metro's system based on jurisdiction: the L.A. Police Department, the Long Beach Police Department, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, Metro's own security force and private contractor RMI Security.

Los Angeles Police Department officers patrol a light rail car in this file photo. (Courtesy L.A. Metro)

The contract with those law enforcement agencies expires in 2022, and the motion notes that the findings and suggestions of the newly formed committee should factor into how the agency approaches future contracts.

The new committee is expected to report back to Metro's Operations, Safety, and Customer Experience Committee in 90 days, then continue on a quarterly basis.

The board also approved a motion calling for a report on the training and use of force policies of each law enforcement agency and security firm with Metro contracts. That report is due in 90 days.

COMMUNITY RESPONSE

Metro received dozens of public comment submissions on the issue of policing transit and agency officials took roughly an hour reading them out loud during the teleconferenced board meeting.

The comments were resoundingly in favor of defunding and eliminating armed policing on Metro's network, with many urging the agency to stop criminalizing poverty and build a more equitable transit system.

Dozens of community organizations signed a letter earlier this week in support of the motion, and local transit advocates praised Metro leaders' action this afternoon.

"Metro riders have been clear that we want public transit to serve as a sanctuary, where everyone can feel safe and access high-quality service. Allocating hundreds of millions of dollars a year on police enforcement that criminalizes low-income riders of color, the unhoused and vendors is directly at odds with that vision," Laura Raymond of the local Alliance for Community Transit said in a statement. "Today's decision to shift away from policing toward community safety alternatives is the first step towards transforming Metro into the world-class and truly safe transit system that Angelenos deserve."

CHANGING POLICING VS. CHANGING POLICE CULTURE

Not all board members were in favor of the motion. L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Glendale City Councilmember Ara Najarian voted against it, with Barger suggesting that the board wait 90 days to hear back on that report examining use of force policies from the various contracted agencies.

Several fellow board members strongly disagreed.

"This is our moment," Janice Hahn said.

Los Angeles Police Department officers patrol an L (Gold) Line station in this file photo. (Courtesy L.A. Metro)

Outgoing board chair and Inglewood Mayor James Butts voted in favor of the motion, but said that the issue is in fundamentally changing police culture and accountability, not taking police off the system.

"We as a board have not defined a mission for our transit safety services," he said, arguing the solution isn't throwing out the current safety model, but reforming it.

"There are bad people in the world and that's why we have to have police officers," said Butts, a former Inglewood police officer and former Santa Monica police chief. "And you are going to have times when they're going to have to take enforcement action, and there's going to be times when it's not going to be pretty... We have to live with that."

Bonin took issue with Butts' focus on police culture, arguing that rethinking the roles police play in public safety is vital.

"We could have cops who are better at doing homeless outreach... there could be a better culture in their agency, they could be trained better — but why?" he said. "Why would we do that if we can have an actual professional who has been trained, [who] has a master's in social work, who can be doing the work? It will be less expensive and be more effective."

Board member and County Supervisor Hilda Solis added that this was a chance to strengthen Metro's "core values" and provide the leadership its riders are counting on them for.

"They want to be safe, they want to be protected — and I would say that it's safety first and jail last," she said. "That's the humanity that brings us together and respecting... what our mission is for Metro, what we want it to be, and being inclusive."

CRIME AND POLICING ON METRO

Safety on the county's public transit system has been a major concern for Metro in recent years. After an audit showed a spike in assaults, robberies and other crimes, the agency took steps that nearly doubled the number of law enforcement officers on its system.

In 2017, Metro's board approved a $797-million security plan, which expanded law enforcement patrols to include L.A. and Long Beach police, while shrinking the jurisdiction of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. The new policing plan took effect that July, with Metro officials saying it would "allow for higher visibility, enhanced response time, improved customer experience and deployment of specifically trained officers to engage patrons with mental illness and/or homelessness."

Metro's own armed security force transitioned to focus on fare enforcement, while the city and county agencies concentrate on "hard crime."

Crime did fall in the system in recent years. According to the agency, Part I crimes, which include assaults, rapes and robberies, dropped more than 20% between 2015 and 2019. Property crimes, including larceny, fell about 11% during that time.

Correction: A previous version of this story identified Ara Najarian as Glendale's mayor. His term ended in April. LAist regrets the error.