Los Angeles County is the midst of a public transit building boom, with five rail lines recently completed or under construction. Voters this month passed Measure M, a permanent sales tax increase that will fund one of the nation’s most ambitious and expensive transportation system expansions, with plans to double the length of the rail network and put more buses on the roads. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority hopes Measure M projects will eventually triple the number of regular transit riders.
But Metro cannot hope to get more people into trains and buses unless the agency addresses a fundamental problem with the system: Too many people are scared to ride public transit.
During public forums on Measure M, people repeatedly asked why they never saw law enforcement or security officers at stations or around buses. Almost 30% of past riders left the system because they did not feel safe, according to a recent Metro survey. Respondents said security and safety were bigger deterrents to using transit than the speed, reliability and accessibility of the buses and trains. In a separate survey last year, 1 in 5 riders said they had experienced “unwanted sexual behavior” or sexual harassment, and 1 in 14 had been fondled or groped while using the system.
For years Metro’s leaders downplayed concerns over safety, noting that the number of serious crimes within the transit system is low and often much lower than in the surrounding community. But the statistics don’t capture riders’ perception of safety, nor do they reflect the lingering fears riders may carry after being trapped in a bus or train with a person who is making threats or acting erratically.
Now, Metro appears to be getting serious about security. The agency more than doubled the number of private, armed security guards to watch over stations and Metro properties, with a staff of 332 now. It also has 77 more Metro employees checking fares, a 75% increase. Nevertheless, Metro’s Board of Directors needs to scrutinize a bigger and more controversial proposal from Metro’s staff to slash the number of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies assigned to the system. Under that plan, which the board is set to vote on Thursday, Metro would hire Los Angeles and Long Beach police to patrol the rail and bus lines in their cities, while also relying more on riders to dial 911 for help.
The sheriff’s department won the contract to patrol the system in 2003 by underbidding the Los Angeles Police Department, which had previously split the responsibility with the sheriff. But Metro leaders have grown increasingly frustrated with the sheriff’s service. A 2014 analysis found that violent crime increased on the sheriff’s watch. Additional reviews found poor system-wide visibility of deputies, along with unreliable staffing of patrols and a heavy reliance on deputies working overtime.
The new Metro plan calls for splitting up the $527-million, five-year contract for policing. The LAPD would patrol trains and buses within the city, covering roughly half of the rail stations and 60% of the bus service. Long Beach police would patrol eight Blue Line stations within that city’s jurisdiction. The sheriff’s department would patrol the rest of the system. Metro would rely on basic 911 police response to fill in the gaps between patrols. All told, the proposal would be nearly $100 million cheaper than hiring more sheriff’s deputies.
There is no question that Metro needs a new plan to police the system, but is this the right model? The agency wants “community policing” in which officers get to know the regular riders and operators, as well as the problems in and around the system. But the LAPD would staff its transit patrols with overtime shifts by officers who normally work other assignments. Metro wants to leverage “free” policing when riders dial 911. But that smacks of Metro foisting additional responsibilities on already overburdened police agencies.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell contends that only a law enforcement agency — not Metro — has the expertise and authority to oversee policing on the rail and bus lines. Mayor Eric Garcetti, on the other hand, argues that Metro ought to direct security to ensure law enforcement is accountable to the Board of Directors.
Frankly, most riders don’t care which agency oversees security or which badge officers wear when they patrol the system. Riders do care about a reliable, visible and respectful law enforcement presence on the system. Voters overwhelmingly passed the Measure M sales tax to dramatically expand and improve the region’s public transit. Now that Metro has the money, the agency has no excuse for not operating the safest system possible.