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Transportation and Mobility

LA Metro Boosts Police Contracts While Calling For Funding To Rethink Public Safety

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In a meeting plagued by live stream technical difficulties, the leaders of Los Angeles County's public transit agency Thursday granted $36 million in additional funding to the law enforcement agencies contracted to patrol its system.

In the same vote, they called on L.A. Metro to invest at least $40 million in next year's budget for public safety and homelessness initiatives that aren't tied to armed police enforcement.

Back in Feb. 2017, the agency awarded five-year contracts to the Los Angeles Police Department, L.A. County Sheriff's Department and Long Beach Police Department, totalling more than $645 million. With Thursday's vote, that amount was boosted to more than $681 million (that doesn't include a contract with a private security firm or Metro's own armed security personnel).

Metro officials say the additional funding is necessary "to address the unprecedented challenges associated with homelessness, COVID-19 pandemic and increased, evolving safety and security requirements in Los Angeles County."

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Dozens of community activists and transit advocates spoke out against the added funding during the meeting, urging the board to not give law enforcement another cent. And when those contracts end in 2022, they're asking Metro's leaders not to renew them, but rather reinvest those millions in community-based safety and social initiatives.

Many cited incidents and data showing that police disproportionately target and cite Black riders on Metro's system.

A recent report from the activist group Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles, or ACT-LA, analyzed Metro's current public safety practices, which the authors argue "have been used to police the mobility of Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color (BIPOC) and reinforce inequities through gentrification, displacement and access to housing."

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LAPD officers patrol Union Station. (Courtesy L.A. Metro)

Metro data obtained by the group showed nearly half of citations from law enforcement are to Black riders, who make up about 18% of Metro's overall ridership. Reporting from the Long Beach Post in July showed that Black riders accounted for 62% of fare evasion citations while representing 21% of transit ridership in that city.

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L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who chairs Metro's board, called the report "very impressive" and said the current law enforcement contracts "got out of control," but that agency leaders have been "put in a position where we can't undo that overspending."

A few who addressed the board were in favor of upping the funding for law enforcement agencies, citing safety concerns of some Metro employees and riders, but the vast majority of speakers called on Metro's leaders to not give police more money.

"I'd like to think that you all are better than this," one speaker said. "Everyone on this board reflects on and makes statements in support of families when their loved ones are murdered by police. But this vote today lets the movement know that the jury is still out on what you really believe."

HOW THAT NEW MONEY MIGHT BE SPENT

Metro staff had initially requested roughly $111 million in additional funding for policing through the end of the contract period, which expires in June 2022, but that was amended to $36 million through Dec. 31 of this year.

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The board also approved an amendment that calls on Metro to invest at least $40 million in its upcoming budget (FY 2021-22) on new approaches to its public safety and homelessness strategies. That includes:

  • $20 million for a "transit ambassador program," modeled after a program launched in the Bay Area. The goal is to staff Metro stations, buses and trains with unarmed personnel who can help riders.
  • $1 million for elevator attendants at Metro stations.
  • $1 million for a "flexible dispatch system" so homeless outreach workers, mental health specialists, and/or ambassadors could respond "in appropriate situations."
  • $5 million for blue light security boxes.
  • $2 million to provide short-term shelter for homeless riders.
  • $5 million for "enhanced homeless outreach teams and related mental health, addiction, nursing, and shelter services."

Those initiatives and others will be studied by Metro's new Public Safety Advisory Committee, which was created in the wake of sustained demonstrations calling for racial justice and new approaches to public safety.

Metro spent the past several months recruiting for the 15-member committee, and its first meeting is scheduled for April.

Garcetti and other board members emphasized the need to move more quickly on the new initiatives, which the amendment will allow them to do.

"We don't need two years to figure it out," Garcetti said during the meeting. "We don't need to wait to get our feet wet until there's a perfect proposal that a majority votes on. We need to be doing this every day, every week, every month and moving forward -- because the time is now."

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CHALLENGING 'FLAWED ASSUMPTIONS'

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LAPD officers patrol an L (Gold) Line station. (Courtesy L.A. Metro)

In its recent report "Metro as a Sanctuary," ACT-LA analyzed Metro's current public safety strategy, which the authors said is "based on flawed assumptions and results in profoundly harmful racial profiling and criminalization."

The report presents alternatives to armed police enforcement on the system, including transit ambassadors, fareless transit, investments in affordable housing, and better, more frequent bus service.

ACT-LA's work to reimagine public safety means "reevaluating how we deal with fear," said Asiyahola Sankara, the group's justice campaign manager. Part of that means challenging the assumption that more police on the system means all riders will feel safer, he said.

Metro board member and County Supervisor Janice Hahn noted that divide in Thursday's meeting.

"Single white women feel safer with uniformed law enforcement being present, but there is a certain part of our communities that feel the exact opposite -- for good reason," she said. "Many times people of color feel unsafe just by the sight of a uniformed officer."

Based on the most recent surveys, about 8% of Metro bus riders and 21% of rail riders are white, while nearly 90% of bus riders and 75% of rail riders identified as people of color.

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(James Bernal for LAist)

The increased presence of police officers and Sheriff's deputies in recent years is unnecessary, given the rate of serious and violent crimes happening on the system, Sankara said.

Law enforcement officers spend most of their time addressing nuisance and code of conduct violations, while a small fraction of contacts lead to felony and misdemeanor arrests, according to ATC-LA's report.

"It's like prescribing five years of chemotherapy for a runny nose," Sankara said. "The treatment just doesn't match the disease."

Sankara pointed to the 2017 death of César Rodríguez, who died during a struggle with Long Beach police officers. Rodríguez had been stopped by the officers because his TAP card did not show proof of fare payment. That turned into a physical struggle, which resulted in Rodríguez being fatally injured when he was pinned between the station platform and an arriving Blue Line train.

"Cesar Rodriguez's story points to not an isolated incident, but a total misorientation of how Metro as an agency creates safety for its riders," Sankara said. "The policing contracts are resting on the assumption that increasing the visibility and the presence of armed police officers will create a safer experience for all riders."

One way to avoid having police stop riders for fare checks would be to make the system free, something Metro is currently exploring. The current proposal is for low-income riders to travel for free starting in 2022, then expand free fares to include K-12 students that August.

"That would be a climate justice slam dunk ... but Metro's not putting two and two together and connecting how that in and of itself would be a safety measure," Sankara said. "Fare disputes are actually the number one cause of assaults on bus drivers, and eliminating fares would be potentially one of the strongest measures Metro could take to prevent attacks on bus drivers."

There's also the homelessness crisis, which is on full display at Metro stations and on its transit lines. The current model for interacting with people experiencing homelessness is tethered to policing, but Sankara and other activists say it's time to change that.

"A police officer is not a social worker," he said. "A police officer is not a housing provider and should absolutely not be Metro's primary, secondary, tertiary approach to connecting homeless riders to housing."

A 2020 report commissioned by ACT-LA looking into alternatives to policing on transit found that, if the goal is to connect homeless people with services and housing, homeless outreach workers are notably more effective than police officers.

Citing Metro data from September through Nov. 2019, researcher Ma'ayan Dembo found that 1% of the unhoused people on Metro contacted by law enforcement received housing, compared with 27% of people contacted by homeless outreach workers from PATH. The data also showed that 28% of unhoused people contacted by police received services, compared with 48% of those contacted by PATH.