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Can civilians “reinvent security” on struggling transit systems?

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BART ambassadors patrolling a train. (Photo courtesy BART)

Security issues have long plagued transit agencies such as San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit District. But with the pandemic pushing security concerns to new heights, BART is testing new security measures that go beyond increasing police presence.

Last year, BART Police began piloting its Transit Ambassadors program, using uniformed but unarmed personnel to respond to passengers facing homelessness, mental health emergencies, drug overdoses and abuse. other crises. Although Community Ambassadors are still accompanied by police officers, the program is part of a shift in many transit agencies’ approach to passenger safety.

“The idea is to really reinvent safety and meet the needs of all types of cyclists, but especially marginalized communities who often aren’t listened to or don’t receive resources based on their needs,” says Alicia, BART Communications Director. Trost.

Although crime incidents on BART per million passengers have declined since the start of the pandemic, they remain higher than before. BART recorded 3.6 crimes per million passengers in the first quarter of 2018, 31.85 crimes in the second quarter of 2020 and 7.21 crimes per million passengers in the third quarter of 2021.

The same goes for quality of life attacks, which involve people harassing passengers, begging, playing loud music, urinating or defecating in public.

BART recorded 134.41 such violations per million passengers in the first quarter of 2018, which climbed to 446.29 per million passengers in the second quarter of 2020, then fell to 222.41 per million in the third quarter of 2021.

Meanwhile, BART ridership has not fully returned to pre-pandemic levels. In June, weekday ridership continued to be one-third of pre-pandemic ridership, while weekend ridership generally hovered around half.

The pandemic-induced hemorrhage of ridership has made it ripe for those affected by homelessness and the opioid epidemic to use public transit as a refuge of last resort, creating an uncomfortable experience for passengers.

“Poll after poll indicates that the number one reason people aren’t going back to public transit is no longer COVID. It’s the fear of public safety,” says California Senator Dave Min of Irvine, who sponsors SB 1161a bill requiring agencies to address what makes passengers feel unsafe.

The bill passed the California Senate unanimously and is currently pending in the Assembly.

BART seems to be ahead of what the bill asks for.

The agency conducts continuous surveys of its passengers to understand what they think of the service. What they learned from these surveys prompted them to deploy their first ambassadors at the dawn of the pandemic.

The ambassadors, who are accompanied by BART police officers, are considered members of their own community and speak multiple languages, including Spanish and the Cambodian representative of the BART riders. Their objective: to ward off harassment and resolve conflicts without involving the police officers who accompany them.

The following year, BART brought in crisis intervention specialists, who help people in mental health crisis, homelessness or substance abuse.

“[Some] literally [want] a cop in each car. But at the same time, [when] we talk to certain communities…they say, ‘It’s scary’…that kind of level of presence is actually scary for them,” Trost says.

The police are calling

The deployment of ambassadors seems to be working. During the pilot period between February and August 2020, Ambassadors called the police to resolve less than 1% of the more than 14,000 interactions they have with passengers.

Reports of sexual harassment, sexual assault and lewd behavior sent by runners through their BART Watch app are also down, from 2% in 2019 to less than 1% so far this year.

“The biggest role [of ambassadors] really is harassment prevention. Specifically, just by having staff on board a wagon, people will generally follow the rules,” says Trost.

“It was extremely rare that an officer had to be called to the scene.”

But longtime BART pilot Darrell Owens, who along with other transit advocates lobbied the agency to implement a transit ambassador program after age 18 . Nia Wilson was killed on a train platform in 2018, doubts it will have any impact.

“I’ve only seen them three times in my whole life, which isn’t great. And every time I’ve seen them, it’s a bunch of them kind of lumped together into one group, which doesn’t seem very efficient,” says Owens.

“The only time I saw them they were discouraging someone from getting too close to the platform which is good. It would be nice to see them spread more and travel more through the system.

Crisis intervention specialists

Their crisis intervention specialists, which they have deployed to respond to the majority of police calls for service consisting of welfare and medical assistance, have produced mixed results.

They appear to be more effective in addressing homelessness, with 34% of BART riders surveyed in Q3 2021 believing BART is doing very well in addressing homelessness, up from 23% in Q3 2018.

And complaints of aggressive begging have fallen from 4% of all crimes in 2019 to 1.1% so far in 2022.

However, it does not appear to be effective in tackling drug use, complaints of which have risen from 18% in 2019 to 25.5% so far this year.

“This is a complex societal problem that goes beyond any transit agency and is not necessarily solved by traditional law enforcement techniques,” said BART communications manager Chris Filippi.

“Support [BART Police] Solving the problem of drug use requires a closer partnership with our justice system to ensure that the people we arrest have access to drug diversion courts.

BART insists it is better to deploy its own crisis response specialists than to rely on help from counties, as this has produced inconsistent results.

“When you’re not a BART employee, sometimes it’s ‘where is your sense of being part of the culture and being part of this family approach’ when it comes to engaging our riders,” laments Trost.

She says all of their non-prison security staff are directly employed by BART and unionized, which means they have more control over how much they are paid and what benefits they receive compared to contracting with a company. private enterprise, a decision which, according to them, cultivates the motivation of the workers. to ensure system security.

Nevertheless, BART is not alone in exploring non-prison approaches to security. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has an ambassador program that relies on entrepreneurs, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority in front follow.

Homeless Action Team

The Metro Transit Police Department in the Twin Cities has created a 2018 Homeless Action Team which linked over 400 formerly homeless people who borrowed the accommodation system to social housing run by its parent agency, the Metropolitan Council.

But BART can’t keep programs running forever. While it’s funded by fare revenue, it’s also funded by one-time federal pandemic relief funds, which are about to run out. A separate proposal to the California legislature hopes to allocate $30 million to the 10 busiest transit agencies to continue this work.

Lawyers can’t wait. One such incident that prompted the bill, according to San Francisco-based nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, which collects data from Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have been harassed in because of their race, involved a passenger using racist, anti-Asian and homophobic slurs at another passenger. and continue to follow them from car to car.

Even with BART’s new approaches to securing their system, they don’t plan to eliminate its police presence anytime soon.

“Don’t forget that public transit has the reality of being [a] terrorist threat,” says Trost. “If a gunman walks into our station and takes a station agent hostage, that’s a scenario [where] we need an armed response.

Henry Pan is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist who primarily reports on his lifelong passion: transportation issues. This article has been originally published in Next City. The Crime Report is pleased to reprint it here through the Journalism Solutions Exchange, part of the Solutions Journalism Network’s programs to disseminate rigorous reporting on problem responses.