Armed with guns and nightsticks, a small number of blue-uniformed transit police are for the first time rubbing shoulders with passengers on RTD buses and in the busy downtown Broadway shopping district as officials attempt to persuade riders that the system is safer than they think.
"Seeing is believing," said Sharon Papa, chief of RTD police, as she stood a few feet from the Southern California Rapid Transit District's new--and highly visible--Broadway foot patrol. "We have historically deployed undercover officers, but people don't believe it. If they don't see them, they don't believe they're there. So we're really changing our mode of operation."
Under a new program started experimentally three weeks ago and announced Tuesday by RTD officials, six uniformed officers are hopping buses and roaming up and down a crowded, eight-block stretch of downtown Broadway, which is the second-busiest bus corridor in the metropolitan area. About 15 more transit officers in uniform are riding RTD buses throughout Los Angeles County. "The idea is to get them on every bus within our service area, not just in high crime areas," Papa said.
Reported crime throughout the sprawling regional bus system has flattened or declined slightly over the past three years, according to RTD, while arrests by transit police have gone up. Nonetheless, RTD General Manager Alan F. Pegg said the public continues to associate bus rides with crime.
Passengers and merchants along Broadway welcomed the news that transit foot patrol police will be milling through the crowds.
"That's nice. I like it," said 76-year-old Lydia Hernandez as she clutched a bus stop pole, a bag of just-purchased bananas at her feet. "I used to come to Broadway all the time. Now, just once in a while. There are a lot of winos and tramps."
Raul, a clothing salesman who declined to give his last name, applauded the foot patrol as "beautiful. We need that. We really do. We thought we had it bad with the con artists. But we didn't know how good we had it until the drug dealers moved in."
Stand in his Broadway store a few hours, Raul promised, and he can point out "who's peddling dope, who steals chains and who steals wallets."
Every day, Roger Quinn catches a bus on Broadway to go to work. "I've seen it all," sighed Quinn, who lost a radio to thieves. "A couple of weeks ago, I saw a kid get his gold neck chain snatched and in the process he was stabbed."
Miracle on Broadway, a nonprofit partnership of public and business interests laboring to revitalize Broadway, approached RTD about a foot patrol two years ago, executive director Estela Lopez said. With more than three-quarters of Broadway's shoppers arriving there by bus, the group argued that RTD has a stake in the district.
In recent years, the RTD police department has doubled to 123 officers as the agency hired more police in anticipation of providing security on the new light rail system between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach. RTD directors wound up contracting with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to police the rail line, freeing up officers for other assignments.
"We're going to tell the public they have a right to a safe ride," said RTD board President Nick Patsaouras at a press conference as buses roared by on Broadway. "We are doing very well, but we can do better."
During the first six months of this year, 789 incidents--mostly thefts and assaults--were reported to transit police, compared to 826 for the same period last year.
Last year, 1,374 crimes were reported. In 1988, there were 1,575 reported crimes, about 130 more than the previous year.
Jim Wilson, support services manager for the transit police, said that although the agency will continue using undercover officers on buses, more police will likely be put in uniform to "try to be more visible in the community and try to deter crime instead of just making arrests."
Union officials representing RTD's 5,000 bus drivers support the new uniformed patrol. The union has expressed concern about another new RTD program that offers free rides to passengers if a bus is more than 15 minutes late. But they have no such qualms about this program.
"I think that's great," said Earl Clark, general chairman of the United Transportation Union. "We encourage the added (police) exposure."
Clark said the union is not planning any actions to protest the free-ride policy inaugurated Sept. 1, but will watch to see if drivers encounter any problems as a result of it. "I think it puts another responsibility on the driver," he said. "They work under extremely adverse conditions as it is."