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Transportation and Mobility

Sheriff Villanueva Will Continue Patrols On County Transit, But LA Metro Has A Plan If He Backs Out

A blue-tinted Metro train arrives to a transit platform near downtown Los Angeles as an out-of-focus man in a blue shirt walks away from the train.
(Courtesy L.A. Metro)
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The leadership of Los Angeles County’s public transit system approved a contingency plan Thursday in case Sheriff Alex Villanueva follows through on his threat to pull deputies from bus and rail lines.

Villanueva had taken issue last month with L.A. Metro’s current policing contract, which the sheriff’s department shares with the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments.

LAPD and LBPD officers patrol the system within their respective city limits, and LASD deputies patrol everywhere else. But Villanueva wants sole jurisdiction over the system and vowed to stop policing his share of the system at the end of June if he didn't get it. That’s when the initial five-year law enforcement contract expires, though Metro voted to extend the contract an additional year.

It appears the sheriff will now honor the agreement after signing a one-year contract extension earlier this month, but Metro’s board voted to grant agency CEO Stephanie Wiggins authority to enact a two-phase plan if that changes.

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This first phase would give the Los Angeles Police Department patrol power at stations, platforms and all other areas currently patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department. LAPD would need the L.A. City Council’s approval first.

In Phase 2, Metro would look to contract with individual city police departments in the county to patrol the areas LASD gave up.

Under the new one-year contract extension, Metro would pay the Sheriff’s Department $71.5 million next fiscal year (which begins in July) to continue its patrols. If the sheriff pulls out of the agreement, that money will go to the LAPD and any other local departments that take over patrols in LASD’s current territory.

Some community advocates feel less law enforcement on public transit is a good thing. They’ve been calling on Metro to replace armed police and deputies with community-based approaches to interacting with people on the system who are struggling with homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues.

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The agency is currently studying how to put that model in place. It also finalized an agreement this week with the county’s Department of Mental Health for trained mental health professionals to respond to incidents on Metro’s system.

“Anyone who has taken Metro knows there is a mental health crisis on our transit system,” board member and County Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a statement. “With this new agreement, our Department of Mental Health will place teams of trained mental health professionals on our buses and trains so that they can respond to people in crisis, de-escalate potentially dangerous situations, and connect people with the long-term treatment and support they need.”

Villanueva has been critical of alternative plans, arguing more policing is needed to address rising crime on the county’s transit network.

“We need Deputies on trains/busses, not ambassadors—arrests/citations, not a Metro Court,” Villanueva said via Twitter last month.

Earlier this week, the sheriff announced plans for a “surge” in deputy patrols on Metro’s system through a new initiative he’s calling Operation Safe Travel. That would include what Villanueva called “targeted operations along the entire system.”

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In Thursday’s meeting, board member and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti asked how the sheriff’s announced surge might affect the L.A. and Long Beach police department.

“When there's not clear jurisdictions, it gets messy,” he said.

Gina Osborn, chief safety officer for Metro, told the board Thursday that her office so far has “no details whatsoever on this plan.”

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