On the Bus Beat : Patrols Aimed at Making Public Transit Safer for Riders, Drivers
Passengers on the crowded bus looked up uneasily as uniformed Officer Mike Limon boarded and began walking slowly down the aisle.
While his partner spoke with the driver, Limon carefully surveyed the bus, looking for any signs of illegal activity: drug dealing, vandalism, drinking.
But all was quiet. The officers stepped off the bus and the driver was on his way again, zipping down Van Nuys Boulevard. The officers continued their journey through Van Nuys on foot.
“Most people are glad to see us on the bus or on foot,” Limon said. “They haven’t seen this before.”
Soon, more bus riders will see such patrols.
Limon and his partner, Tom Trucinski, are part of a new RTD Transit Police project aimed at making the bus stops and buses around Van Nuys Boulevard safer for riders and bus drivers.
The Van Nuys Boulevard patrols were initiated in March in response to “numerous complaints” from citizens and drivers, said Sgt. Janice Hart of the RTD Transit Police. Councilman Ernani Bernardi also complained about rowdy teen-agers harassing senior citizens at the bus stops.
“There was excessive loitering at the bus stops, narcotics, begging,” Hart said. “Prior to the arrival of this detail, that’s what was happening.”
To combat the problem, Nikolas Patsaouras, president of the RTD board of directors, instituted foot patrols along Van Nuys Boulevard between Oxnard Street and Sherman Way, Hart said.
The Van Nuys project is patterned after foot patrols that were started in downtown Los Angeles last September on Broadway, said Sharon Papa, chief of the RTD Transit Police Department. The Van Nuys patrols, plus similar efforts in East and South Los Angeles, have been dubbed the Safe Community Alert Awareness Team or SCAAT.
During the past five months, the 13 members of SCAAT have arrested or cited more than 270 people in the Valley for violations ranging from fare evasion--sneaking on board without paying--to robbery, Rapid Transit District officials said.
“A lot of people weren’t even aware that we had a police department,” Hart said. “Now they’re aware.”
The project has been so successful, officials said, that a substation to house four officers will be opened on Branford Street in Sun Valley today at an RTD facility. Although other SCAAT officers may move from one part of the city to another, these will be based permanently in the Valley and will handle Valley calls only.
Bus drivers, merchants and others have welcomed the new enforcement.
“I feel more secure,” said driver Jesus Saldana, sitting at the wheel of his bus. “It’s been good for the drivers and the public.”
“It’s a very good idea,” said Robert Arias, manager of a shoe store on Van Nuys Boulevard that sits behind an RTD bus stop.
Before the patrols, loiterers would congregate at the bus stop, Arias said. One morning, a transient waiting for a bus perched himself in front of the store’s door and refused Arias’ repeated requests to move. Arias finally forced his way past the man so he could open the shop for business. Scenes like that are less common since the patrols began, he said.
“Right now it’s fine because of them,” Arias said.
The RTD Transit Police Department was created in 1978 to protect the district’s vehicles and passenger stops. Officers of the 175-member force carry weapons and have the authority to make arrests and issue citations in all five counties the RTD serves, Hart said.
But the duties of SCAAT officers go beyond public transit.
As they patrolled Van Nuys Boulevard recently, Officer Mark Slocum and his partner, Ira Terry, directed cars around a traffic accident and laid out flares until a Los Angeles police officer arrived to handle the incident.
Limon and Trucinski later checked up on a transient they had met the day before who, according to people who complained, had exposed herself in public. When the woman had protested that it wasn’t her fault that her clothes somehow kept falling down, the officers advised her to do something to solve the problem, even buy safety pins to keep her pants on.
Now, standing in front of a shopping cart filled with clothes and phone books, the woman flipped mindlessly through a book while Trucinski asked if she had purchased the safety pins. She looked up, seemingly recognizing the officer, and asked in bewilderment, “Where is your car?”
She would ask that question several times before explaining that stores carried only small safety pins and she needed a big one. Trucinski told her to keep looking and gently advised her to move on.
“You should have a car,” the woman insisted as the officers continued walking down Van Nuys Boulevard.
“Our main responsibilities are the buses and the patrons,” Limon said. “But if we see something going down, we handle it.” Before SCAAT came to the Valley there were no regular RTD patrols in the Van Nuys area. Most calls from RTD drivers were handled by the Los Angeles Police Department, Hart said. SCAAT officers now respond to radio calls from bus drivers and work with Los Angeles police.
Policing a moving object adds a different dimension to law enforcement, the transit officers said. Part of the task is simply finding the bus.
Slocum used both a Thomas Guide map book and a bus schedule recently as he tried to locate a bus whose driver had reported that juveniles were writing on the inside. The officers never found the bus. They later learned that the youths had hopped on the bus and hopped right off.
It’s a common disappointment for the transit cops. Sometimes crime suspects simply get off the bus before police arrive. Other times, bus drivers are unable to update dispatchers on their location after they radio for help.
“It makes it a lot more difficult,” said Slocum as he and his partner drove through Van Nuys. “You have to use all of your resources.”
In May, RTD officials were unable to locate a bus that carried a deranged woman who ended up shooting another passenger. In a test program, RTD officials recently installed electronic vehicle-locaters in some buses to keep track of the vehicles.
But the most persistent problems faced by SCAAT officers have not been violent incidents such as the shooting last May.
The majority of the arrests made by the SCAAT officers in the Valley were for drinking in public, officials said. Boisterous and rude teen-agers also are a common problem.
“They do whatever they want,” Saldana said of his teen-age passengers. “But when the officers are here they show more respect.”
Gloria Navarette, who has driven for RTD for two years, said the bus patrols show that the drivers are not the only authority on the bus.
“Before they never thought we had any type of security,” Navarette said of troublemakers. “Now they kind of watch out.”
Valley Transit Police Blotter: MARCH 1-JULY 31
ARRESTS Drinking in public: 176 Narcotics violations: 14 Vandalism or outstanding warrants: 13 Public drunkenness: 2 Robbery: 1 Sexual battery: 1 Assault with caustic chemicals: 1 Petty theft: 1 Total: 209
CITATIONS Transit-related crimes (Misusing passes, causing disturbances, etc.): 65 Total: 65 Source: Southern California Rapid Transit District police