Crime is up on Los Angeles buses, trains. Metro has a plan

Men followed her, whistling, grinning at her.

Whenever Scarlett De León was annoyed as a young girl on the bus – to school, to work or wherever she had to go – she sat next to the driver or near friendly-looking passengers.

“I think my experiences with public transport are very similar to women’s experiences in public spaces,” she said. “What made me feel safe during that time was having friends around me, bus drivers, other drivers.”

Now an attorney, De León, 32, has been pushing for a so-called ambassador program for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s bus and rail system.

Three people on a train

Scarlett De León, center, speaks with fellow commuter Terue Williams on the Metro Red Line in North Hollywood.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The $122 million pilot program, approved by Metro’s board of directors in June, will deploy up to 300 uniformed workers on trains and buses starting in the fall to help keep passengers safe. The ambassadors will help with directions, alert police to a threat, direct people to homeless services, keep an eye on people at risk, and check that seats are clean and passengers are safe.

The program has a term of up to five years and could be expanded if successful.

The transit agency, like many others across the country, is struggling with declining ridership and rising crime. Officials hope the program will provide a sense of security, lure long-time users back and attract new commuters.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who led the Metro board through Thursdaysaid it was “probably one of the most significant programs this agency will ever launch.”

Some workers will be at fixed stops while others will roam the system. No one will be armed or issue tickets. The effort is part of a reform package aimed at shifting funds to homeless services and finding alternatives to armed law enforcement — approved by Metro’s board of directors following widespread protests over George Floyd’s police killing in Minneapolis two years ago.

A commuter on a train platform

A commuter makes his way through the Hollywood and Highland subway station in Hollywood June 30.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The agency hopes to ease some drivers’ tensions with law enforcement. Advocates point out that in 2020 black drivers got 53% of fare evasion tickets while they made up just 16% of passengers.

De León said when she was 18, she received a warrant for fare evasion and feared what the fines might do to her family.

“We often had to pay a dollar for our bus or for food,” she said. “I lived with my single mother and the economic burden of speeding tickets and warrants was a daunting burden. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to pay for it and what the consequences would be.”

De León is now the campaign manager for the Alliance for Community Transit Los Angeles, a nonprofit advocacy coalition that works with other groups to get Metro to limit or end its contract with law enforcement.

After George Floyd’s protests rocked the country, Metro was more receptive to perspectives like De León’s.

Los Angeles councilman and Metro board member Mike Bonin introduced the reforms that created an advisory board that includes De León to help the agency create the ambassador program. Bonin was inspired by a statement from the National Assn. of the then city traffic officials.

A man dozing with his head against the train station wall

A man takes a nap at the Hollywood and Western subway station.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

“Racism, police violence and structural injustice are transport problems, and as transport planners, engineers, politicians and decision-makers we cannot turn a blind eye,” it said. It condemned law enforcement harassment of people of color in transit and on the streets.

“That was a very strong statement,” he said. “I thought, ok, this is probably my best place to do something.”

Modeled on similar programs in the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority system, Metro Ambassadors will carry cellphones and radios with lines to law enforcement and mental health crisis response teams.

“You no longer have to worry about law enforcement when customers just need a friendly face, for example,” Desarae Jones said, Metro Senior Director of Special Projects. “What we’ve heard from our customer surveys isn’t that they want more security, just more presence. Because they are in a ward and they are alone, and they feel like if someone was in the ward with them, they would automatically feel safer if something happened.”

These polls of about 2,000 current and retired drivers, conducted last summer, found that only 18% of female drivers felt very safe using the subway. Only 11% of all drivers felt very safe on the system at night.

Commuters arrive at the North Hollywood subway station on the North Hollywood Red Line.

Commuters arrive at the North Hollywood subway station on the North Hollywood Red Line.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Violent crime in the system is up 72% in the first four months of this year compared to 2021. And despite some people’s reservations about having more cops in the system, the top driver recommendation for improving safety was more security and police.

“I want more cops,” said Shavonne Mays, 45, who walked to catch the subway at Union Station. “I just saw someone being pushed into the elevator.”

She said she avoids taking the metro if she can.

The poll found that commuters want the ambassadors to address drug use, struggles in the system, and racial and sexual harassment. But 68% wanted Metro to give police more priority.

“I have serious doubts that the ambassadors will make a difference and resolve some of the issues that drivers find most troubling,” said Glendale Metro Board and Council Chairman Ara Najarian.

“An ambassador will not stop anyone from taking an aerosol can, striking a match against it and using it as a blowtorch,” he said, referring to a May 11 attack in which a train passenger was set on fire.

“It will not stop anyone from being robbed, abused or sexually assaulted,” Najarian said. “Ambassadors help you know which train is going next and ‘Where am I?'”

Metro has said that while the ambassadors are not police, they can work with law enforcement.

Two people are talking on a platform

Scarlett De León of the Alliance For Community Transit speaks to a commuter at the Red Line North Hollywood subway station.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

In the Bay Area, where ridership has fallen, ambassadors have largely issued masks and conducted welfare checks on riders. But some have also administered Narcan, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses. Officials there believe their presence deters crime.

“Just being on a train can stop someone from smoking crack or defecating in a train car,” said BART deputy chief Angela Averiett, who heads the Bureau of Advanced Policing. “I think it really makes people think twice before doing anything that’s illegal or harmful to themselves or others.”

Since January, the BART team of 10 ambassadors has operated 5,300 trains and interacted with approximately 1,700 passengers. said a BART spokesman. While employed by the police, they are civilians who supplement the officers’ work.

Averiett said that if an ambassador encountered a drug-using driver – a common complaint among subway drivers – they would not approach the person, but instead would call the transit police. In other situations, the ambassadors have de-escalated people in mental crises.

Metro tries a different approach by not running the program through its police contractors, instead hiring two companies to execute the contract: Strive Well-Being, a workplace wellness company; and RMI International, a Paramount-based security company.

Strive will recruit approximately 55 employees from local nonprofits such as Communities Actively Living Independent & Free and Homeboy Industries to serve as ambassadors. The bulk of the ambassadors will come from RMI, which already provides private security at Metro, a potential bone of contention for some of the activists who have been pushing the program.

“I don’t know yet how that will develop,” said De León. “But I would say it can’t be the same people who are in charge of security who are running the ambassador program.”

Commuters at the Hollywood and Western subway station in Hollywood

Commuters make their way through the Hollywood and Western subway station in Hollywood.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times) Crime is up on Los Angeles buses, trains. Metro has a plan

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