After Violent Incidents On Metro, How Safe Is LA’s Public Transit?
A string of violent incidents on Metro trains and buses have made news headlines in recent months. That's led to renewed calls for boosting safety on public transit, but also assertions from some advocates that L.A.'s transportation system is relatively safe.
"If you look at it in terms of usage, the actual violent crime numbers are de minimis," said James T. Butts, Inglewood’s mayor and a Metro board member. "That being said, we care about every crime."
Ridership has been recovering from a big dip during the pandemic. This week, Metro reported that ridership on Metro's trains, buses and Micro on-demand transit had risen to 74% of pre-pandemic levels — the highest monthly total since March 2020.
As riders return, just how safe is L.A.’s public transit system?
On Wednesday, a Metro bus driver was stabbed multiple times by a passenger in Woodland Hills. Jader Chavez, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department, said the incident started with an argument on the bus.
"The bus driver and the suspect exited the bus and continued the argument, at which time the suspect produced a knife and stabbed the bus driver multiple times," Chavez told LAist. The attacker ran away.
L.A. Mayor Karen Bass issued a statement saying the "act of violence is horrific and the harm done to one of our Metro drivers is tragic." During a Metro board meeting on Thursday, she said safety efforts need to be redoubled.
“We know ridership is down on the trains and the buses, and we certainly don’t want public safety to be the reason,” she said.
At the meeting, the driver was described as being in “very critical condition” after having undergone surgery, and that his family had reported that he tried to open his eyes Thursday morning.
On Thursday afternoon, LAPD officials said they'd arrested a 17-year-old in connection with the attack. Authorities had released images of the alleged assailant and offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, although it was not immediately clear what led police to the teenager.
Our thanks to Chief Moore and the team that apprehended this person so quickly. https://t.co/YKdpKBrlK0— Metro Los Angeles (@metrolosangeles) May 25, 2023
Metro's A line (formerly the Blue line) in Long Beach has been the scene of two violent incidents in recent months — a man was stabbed to death in April. And earlier this month, an Asian woman riding the train northbound from the downtown Long Beach station told ABC7 that a fellow female passenger had punched her repeatedly in the face and yelled racial slurs at her.
Metro is reviewing video recordings from the recent incident, Metro spokesperson Dave Sotero said in a statement, and the agency will share their findings soon. "But we want to make clear that Metro has no tolerance for, and will aggressively investigate any incidents of crime, harassment or intimidation on our system," the statement reads.
In a letter to the transit agency's CEO on Tuesday, L.A. County Supervisor and Metro board member Janice Hahn is asking: Where were the police?
Hahn noted that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on transit safety. Despite this, she wrote, the passenger on the A line who was punched had to "fend for herself."
Other Metro board members and members of the public had similar questions at Thursday's Metro board meeting about the police response to the bus operator attack this week.
The recent incidents followed earlier problems. In March, the Los Angeles Times wrote about six deaths and one shooting at the MacArthur Park/Westlake station in 2022, as well as dozens of more recent medical emergencies. The story declared that “drug use is rampant” throughout the Metro system.
What the data says
According to Metro data, the number of crimes across the transit system was up 21% in February of this year compared to the previous year. Nevertheless, Sotero noted, the number of crimes is relatively small:
- 325 total crimes were recorded in February 2023, 57% of them crimes against people, including assault and rape.
- There were more than 21 million individual rides that month.
Sotero said the ongoing homelessness crisis in L.A. and growing fentanyl use have affected the transit system just as they have other aspects of public life. "It's a problem that's not unique to Metro," he said.
A new report from county public health officials found a sharp spike in drug-related deaths among L.A. County’s unhoused community, largely driven by methamphetamine and fentanyl. Sotero said most of the recent deaths on transit were suspected opioid overdoses.
Still, Hahn and other transit advocates are concerned about whether Metro is getting its money's worth from contracts with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, and the Long Beach and LA police departments for security. A recent audit from Metro's Inspector General revealed that sheriff's deputies working on Metro ride the trains just 12 out of 178 shifts a week.
Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins confirmed Thursday that the initial responding officer to Wednesday’s stabbing was not an officer working under Metro's contract, raising questions about why the security forces Metro pays for were not quicker to respond.
What is Metro doing to increase safety?
Butts said he's seen recent improvements in the visibility of police officers on the transit system. Besides Metro's police contracts, the agency has more than 250 of its own security officers and has recently hired 300 "Transit Ambassadors." The job of these unarmed personnel is to support passengers who need assistance but also to deter crime and provide "extra eyes and ears" on trains and buses in order to report problems.
Los Angeles County Metro introduces its Ambassador Pilot Program, 300 people who will help riders on rail and bus systems. It’s part of a wider effort to improve public safety and get passengers back to mass transit in the wake of the pandemic. #LAMetro pic.twitter.com/NqLmHdcIjs— Saul Gonzalez (@SaulGonzalezCA) March 6, 2023
Data reported to the Metro board on Thursday showed that arrests on buses and trains in March were up from the previous month — by 33% and 19% respectively. Chief Safety Officer Gina Osborn told LAist this is primarily because of increased security presence on the system and Metro's "Drug-Free" campaign, which started in February.
"We don't want people to misunderstand that crime is up," she said of this data.
The data also showed that assaults against bus and rail operators jumped from seven in February of this year to 23 in March — by far the largest number of attacks in the last six months. Spitting and assaults using hands were the most common methods of assault.
Metro staff said at the Thursday meeting that they're piloting several different types of security cages for drivers to give them more protection.
We're going to keep working on visibility, presence, so that people have a greater perception of safety.
Butts said, in his view, the bigger problem for Metro is the perception of insecurity, not actual insecurity. A 2022 rider survey found that safety was the top area female riders wanted to see improved, on both buses and trains. Safety concerns were not as paramount for male riders.
But he said having more of an official security presence on transit helps with both problems.
"We're going to keep working on visibility, presence, so that people have a greater perception of safety," Butts said.
Sotero said Metro was piloting interventions at high crime spots such as the Westlake/MacArthur Park and 7th/Metro stations, including improved lighting and cameras and adding cleaning and security staff.
More riders, more security
Metro is studying the possibility of forming its own police force rather than contracting out with other agencies. Metro is the largest transit agency in the country without its own force.
Eli Lipmen, executive director of the transit advocacy group Move LA, said he thinks having a Metro police force would improve security, especially on trains.
"On a bus, you have the bus operator who can see the entire bus," he said. "On the train, the operator is in their box and they don't see what's happening in the train itself. And so it's really up to riders to report it."
He said more riders on transit tends to make it safer. Metro CEO Wiggins said at Thursday's board meeting that increasing safety and security is "paramount" to increasing ridership.
Lipmen would like to see Metro do more to promote its LA Metro Transit Watch app, which allows riders to immediately contact Metro security to report crimes or suspicious activity. Users can also upload photos and choose whether to submit tips anonymously or provide their contact information for follow-up.
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