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Criminal Justice

Sheriff Villanueva Threatens to Pull Deputies From MTA Rail And Bus Lines

LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva, in uniform, gestures with his right hand while speaking at a news conference. Part of the lower portion of the Sheriff's Department seal is visible on the wall behind him.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
(Screenshot from L.A. Sheriff's Department's Facebook page)
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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva threatened Wednesday to end his department’s contract to patrol parts of the MTA rail and bus lines unless the agency allows his deputies to provide law enforcement for the whole system.

Currently, the Sheriff’s Department, LAPD and Long Beach Police Department each patrol the MTA lines that run through their jurisdictions.

The Sheriff’s Department once held the lucrative contract to patrol all MTA rail lines and buses. The MTA Board of Directors ended the contract in 2017 because it was unhappy with the service from the department, which was having trouble staffing the transit lines.

That’s when the MTA decided to divide responsibilities among the three agencies. It also has its own transit police and contracts with private security.

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In making his threat, Villanueva said his deputies are unable to do their jobs because the MTA Board has been “degrading and defunding” law enforcement. He said his deputies are unable to enforce quality-of-life crimes because of what he called the MTA’s new “woke” restrictions on what deputies can do.

Villanueva also displayed statistics from his department showing a rise in robberies and aggravated assaults on the MTA since 2019.

The sheriff said his deputies are no longer allowed to enforce such crimes as trespassing, public drunkenness and urinating.

Villanueva said there are 5,700 unhoused people living on MTA trains, arguing the system has become “a mobile homeless shelter.”

Amid the uproar over the role of police following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, the MTA has sought to limit the use of armed police to enforce quality-of-life crimes on the transit system. Unhoused people have been particularly subject to such enforcement.

In arguing for giving his department full control over policing the transit system, Villanueva did not provide an assessment of how well he thinks the LAPD and Long Beach Police Department have been performing on the MTA.

Later Wednesday, the sheriff issued a statement “to clarify” that “[at] no time was I casting any dispersions [sic] upon the Los Angeles Police Protective League [the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers] … and the Los Angeles Police Department.”

LAPD Chief Michel Moore told the Los Angeles Times that the current patrol structure "has improved safety" on trains and buses. Everyone in law enforcement has "a shared responsibility for the public safety and mass transit, and we can and should work collaboratively together," he said.

Villanueva sent a letter to the MTA Board Wednesday in which he threatens to redeploy his more than 315 deputies currently devoted to transit policing unless the board commits to giving his department the full contract before the current agreement expires on June 30.

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County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who is also chair of the MTA Board, issued a statement saying the sheriff's threat "should alarm everyone." She said "he would essentially be defunding his own department if not awarded a sole contract." 

LA Metro issued a statement saying it hopes "to work together with all our law enforcement partners to arrive at a mutually satisfactory agreement."

Villanueva said the Sheriff’s Department currently receives $66 million for its role in the current contract. The department is proposing that the MTA pay it $130 million for the full contract, which Villanueva said would be “$30 million cheaper than the current version.”

The department will expand its transit force to around 600 if it's granted the full contract.

Transit activist groups, including Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles, have argued that the money going to police should be invested in non-law enforcement options like transit ambassadors and outreach workers.

This story has been updated.

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