In the midst of a global pandemic with disproportionate effects on low-income color communities and the outbreak of mass unrest, Metro caused yet another source of concern for the majority of black-and-brown transit drivers when they took unprecedented measures to end service across LA County on May 30, causing Thousands of drivers are stranded in the name of "safety". To make the injury worse, the buses were used to transport dozens of detained peaceful demonstrators to a stopping area that Metro was allegedly obliged to. However, transit drivers and advocates saw this action as another clear example in which Metro is working closely with police forces such as the LAPD.
From 2017 to 2022, Metro will spend $ 797 million (and possibly millions more for overtime) in law enforcement oversight and response to the region's transit system under a multi-agency contract with LAPD, LA's sheriff's department Police from Long Beach and private security. Metro also has its own transit security officer. This 5-year contract is an increase of almost 60 percent over the agency's previous police budget of $ 500 million at a time when crime on the Metro is on the decline.
Nearly $ 1 billion in police work has been spent on improving transit infrastructure and services. More importantly, however, young, black, and Latin American drivers who make up Metro’s primary drivers feel less safe due to the increasing police force. Increased police presence in the metro has led to racial profiles and criminalization of poverty, and often causes colored transit drivers to feel uncomfortable.
Protests in the United States against police brutality and the call on local governments to devalue the law enforcement agencies are having a tremendous impact and are making a significant contribution to changing the way cities redefine security. In just over two weeks, the base wave of support has already prompted some elected leaders to commit to cut police budgets or even cut their local police departments.
After weeks of mass mobilization led by Black Lives Matter LA and a powerful presentation of the LA People's Coalition coalition to city guides earlier this week, LA City Council member Herb Wesson proposed an application to shift the emergency response to non-violent service calls such as mental health crises, Drug abuse and disputes with neighbors, away from LAPD to unarmed trained professionals. The Mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, also suggested that a meager percentage be removed from the LAPD's $ 1.8 billion budget and, along with another $ 100 million, be redirected to color community support programs. But $ 250 million is a trivial amount and falls short of the actual investment required to raise distressed black communities.
As a regional transportation agency with one of the largest police budgets, Metro needs to take steps to separate itself from the police and redefine public transport security. Armed law enforcement patrols should not be the standard approach Metro implements to respond to people with homelessness or mental illness, or to improve driver experience. Police officers are not social workers or psychiatric professionals, and service call first responders have often resulted in escalations and violent outcomes. Metro needs to broaden their perception of who can provide security and consider alternative crime prevention measures through design and infrastructure.
There are indications that alternatives to the police in local public transport are actually viable and effective solutions. Off the Rails: Alternatives to Transit Police, a new report by UCLA urban researcher Ma’ayan Dembo includes case studies of security measures implemented by transportation agencies in the United States, Mexico and Colombia that do not affect law enforcement agencies. These alternative interventions include social workers, transit ambassadors, elevator attendants, performance artists, and other crime-prevention measures that offer security without law enforcement and help reduce driver anxiety. Her research found that transit drivers often felt safer when non-law enforcement officers were present.
The report looked at Metro's partnerships with LAPD Homeless Outreach and Preventive Engagement (HOPE) and long-time homeless service provider People Assisting The Homeless (PATH) to provide contact and services to people affected by homelessness and other challenges in Metro. The report found that PATH teams are less expensive and have higher success rates than HOPE teams in providing meaningful services to people with homelessness. In addition, the off-the-rails analysis of transit ambassador programs in the Bay Area and New York City found that programs like these provide additional eyes and ears to prevent crime, reduce operator attacks and prevent youth in to enter the criminal justice system.
For a decade, Metro has understaffed its customers by spending too much on the police and underfunding much-needed improvements in bus service, maintenance, and infrastructure, resulting in a 25% drop in bus driver numbers. With the outbreak of COVID-19, crime in LA has decreased significantly, further showing that the dollars spent on the police could be better spent on improving transit reliability, increasing social workers for transit, and piloting a transit ambassador program.
Metro must take into account this historic moment of public outrage at systemic racism, abuse of power and the police's failure to protect citizens. The agency has to please its loyal drivers who want the community's security against police work. The nation has reached a point that requires a redesign of security. What is needed is urban reconstruction, which eliminates the need for the police by redirecting the billions of dollars spent on police services to housing, education, jobs, affordable health care, psychosocial services, and free transit. That is what protects the communities. Local leaders and transportation agencies need to lean to work together to ensure community security.
Mariana Huerta Jones is a senior coalition and communications manager at Alliance for Community Transit – Los Angeles (ACT-LA), a coalition of advocates of transit and housing justice that are committed to improving housing stability and transportation in LA. Follow ACT-LA online at @ All4Transit and #PeoplesTransit.
ACT-LA #PeoplesTransit transit ambassador. Photo by ACT-LA