“Burn the Witch!”: Public Enthusiasm for Dragging Rude Youth from Trains Highlights Gap in Metro’s Equity Platform

Officer drags Bethany Nava off the train at Westlake/MacArthur Park for not removing her foot from the seat where it was propped up. [Image: still from video taken by Brock Bryan.]
Officer drags Bethany Nava off the train at Westlake/MacArthur Park for not removing her foot from the seat where it was propped up. [Image: still from video taken by Brock Bryan.]

Back in January, I posted the story of 18-year-old Bethany Nava being dragged off a train for ignoring requests to take the foot she had curled underneath her off the seat. In it, I raised questions about whether this was the best we could ask of law enforcement and did a bit of a dive into how and why not everyone feels reassured by the more intense police presence on Metro transit.

“Burn the witch!” came the booming reply across several social media platforms.

I was officially shooketh.

Not because I think it’s OK for people to put their feet all over seats and ignore multiple polite requests that they comply with Metro’s code of conduct. [Spoiler alert: I’m not a fan. So, if you’re looking to read me on how rude teens and/or feet on seats are the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it, put a pin in it. For all our sakes.]

But because I genuinely struggled to understand how people had come to the conclusion that a stubborn teen being dragged off a train and taken away by enough officers to field a baseball team was a) proportionate to the crime, b) the best we could expect from law enforcement, c) what we should expect from law enforcement, and d) an outcome that makes transit feel safer and more welcoming for all.

People love seeing others get their comeuppance – that much is clear. And rude behavior on transit understandably strikes a deep chord in hearts across the city – including, and perhaps especially, among many of those who themselves would never deign to set foot on a bus or a train.

But people had been so caught up in detailing the crimes against humanity her “poopy feet” (as some referred to them) had wrought that there was very little space for reflection on the larger implications of what it was that they were cheering.

Even Metro struggled to carve out space for reflection on the incident. The first statement issued by Metro CEO Phil Washington on January 24 regarding events seemed to indicate that he, too, was troubled both by the images and its larger implications. Within hours, however, the outpouring of burn-the-witch sentiment and what we can only presume were multiple phone calls from official agencies equating Washington’s disappointment over the images with a lack of support for law enforcement meant his original statement would be excised from The Source. It was quickly replaced with one reiterating Washington’s respect for law enforcement and a plea that we not rush to judgment regarding the officer’s actions.

As Metro prepares to refine and implement its newly approved equity framework aimed at centering the needs of lower-income riders of color in the agency’s policy and planning processes, it needs to find the courage to revisit the incident and its implications.

Because while the staff report mentions the need to improve transit access for lower-income riders of color and guard against displacement and gentrification that would hinder their access, there is no explicit attention given to ensuring that approaches to the policing of the system do not constitute a barrier to access for those same riders.

The details of framework will surely be filled in as the engagement process gets underway. But the absence of explicit mention of the need for engagement around approaches to policing and accountability is surprising in light of the prioritization of policing (the visibility of law enforcement has doubled since last July), the role Metro believes perceptions of “safety” play in attracting greater ridership, the complexity of the issue, and the fact that transparency around how the system is being policed remains a problem.

The best way to connect the dots between the incident involving Nava and Metro’s approach to equity might be via the most common response I saw any time anyone questioned how the encounter between the teen and the officer played out: “She disobeyed him, what else was he supposed to do?”

What else, indeed.

It is a troubling question. For one, it implies that once a person being engaged is deemed noncompliant, all bets should be off the table.

To that end, a startling number of commenters suggested the officer was too restrained and not rough enough, either with her or the bystanders. Others wanted to see her and those questioning and/or insulting the officer locked up. Inglewood Mayor and Metro Boardmember James Butts, in some pointed remarks at the January 25th board meeting, took it a step further, expressing surprise that the officer hadn’t moved to “smack” some of the people around him as he radioed for help with the “brat.” [Discussion of the incident begins at 24:00; Butts’ remarks begin at 26:03]

Given the abuses of the use of force we’ve all been witness to over the past several years and the fact that “failure to comply” has been used as a pretense to demean, cuff, frisk, ticket, arrest, tackle, or shoot men and youth of color – many of whom had neither posed a threat nor committed a crime – that line of reasoning is deeply worrisome.

But the question also points to the central dilemma created by the deployment of armed law enforcement officers to police etiquette and other civil infractions. Namely, that engagements that begin as an effort to exact compliance, over the course of the encounter, can instead become about the exertion of control.

In this case, the teen’s noncompliance with the rules appeared to be clear [she says otherwise, arguing her foot was resting on her own leg, which is why she responded to the officer with questions rather than “compliance”]. As the situation escalated, however, it became less and less clear what kind of compliance the officer was hoping to exact and more and more evident that his primary goal was establishing control over her, the situation, and the people around him.

In an effort to offer unequivocal support of the officer’s actions, Butts – who has overseen three police departments – explained why this was. In the process, he inadvertently made a surprisingly strong case for rethinking the deployment of armed officers on transit.

The teen, he said, had put the sergeant in an “impossible” situation.

Once she did not comply, Butts continued, the officer had only two choices: leave her alone and show the crowded train car that anyone could do whatever they wanted on transit or call ahead and get officers to meet him at the next station.

The officer, as we all saw in the recording, did neither. But Butts explained that the reason was because the officer “would have [had] no expectation” of resistance.

In framing it in this unusual way – that it was wholly unexpected that an officer specifically tasked with engaging people who were not complying with rules might ever be met with noncompliance – Butts was not only absolving officers of having to have any capacity for de-escalation, he was also arguing that the teen had put the sergeant in significant danger.

A lone officer with a gun on his hip in a crowded train car was now at risk of having his weapon snatched from his holster as he tried to remove the girl from the train, Butts explained.

As such, an officer has no choice but to see everything as threatening: the teen hanging onto the pole because she didn’t want to be dragged off without her belongings, the girl’s backpack (which Butts says shouldn’t have been given back to her uninspected), the people filming on the platform on the side of his service weapon, and Selena Lechuga, the woman who questioned, insulted, and, after being cuffed and led away, spit at the officer.

The officer would have been within his rights to yell and curse at them all to step back, Butts suggested.

“He cannot afford to lose in a confrontation,” Butts reiterated. “He has a firearm.”

On this last point, Butts is not necessarily wrong: for the safety of the officer and bystanders alike, an armed officer cannot afford to put him or herself in a position where their weapon could be seized or a weapon could be pulled on them. And the need to protect against those kinds of outcomes is often why officers behave in ways that sometimes appear counterintuitive or overexaggerated to the public.

But if that is the case, as Metro Boardmembers Hilda Solis and Jackie Dupont-Walker pointed out during their comments, then why was the officer alone (making him more vulnerable)? Why wasn’t a citation given or other options explored before hands were put on the teen? Knowing that an armed officer alone faces such a dilemma every time they engage a member of the public, every possible precaution should be taken to ensure an officer never finds him or herself in a situation where they feel threatened.

Because as Butts himself had said, once the sergeant put hands on the teen, there was no backing down: “He had to have a resolution.”

And, as we all saw, that “resolution” was a teen and an angry bystander being hauled away in cuffs by enough officers to halt a bank robbery and eventually cited for things that had nothing to do with feet on seats.

For many within Metro’s core ridership (Lechuga included), Nava being dragged off the train evokes images of the way their communities have historically been and continue to be disproportionately profiled and mistreated by law enforcement.

And that’s a problem.

Not because of what this officer did, per se, but because of the discretion it suggests officers have to decide which codes will be enforced and how. Because of the fear that that discretion will be used to target youth and men of color as a way to let them know they are being watched, to make them feel less welcome, and to run warrant checks. Because of the fear that those from disenfranchised communities who have endured significant struggle could easily have their forward momentum derailed. Because they already feel criminalized in their own neighborhoods, where they are regularly stopped and frisked. And because of the fear that an encounter over a similarly minor infraction – real or perceived – could end up escalating to something much more serious.

That last fear was realized just this past summer, when 23-year-old Cesar Rodriguez was crushed by a Blue Line train after being stopped for fare evasion at the Wardlow station.

The details of that August 29 incident as yet remain unclear – the family was first told the death was an accident. Later, they heard that he had tried to jump off the platform to escape officers. The Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) statement on the matter offered a third version of events, stating that after the Transit Security Officers – Metro’s security team tasked with checking fare compliance and issuing citations – alerted the LBPD, Rodriguez was detained on the platform for fare evasion. Officers then searched him and found he had narcotics, apparently prompting Rodriguez to try to flee. “Both he and the officer fell onto the platform,” the statement reads. And because “the suspect’s lower extremities were partially off the edge of the platform” as a train was incoming, Rodriguez was struck and trapped between it and the platform.

It’s a horrifying scenario that thankfully has not repeated itself since. But the questions the incident raise – why Rodriguez was searched over a $1.75 non-criminal infraction, how he ended up on the ground, why the family has yet to have any answers, and why such a tragic incident did not prompt more reflection within Metro – are all cause for pause.

Evelia Granados holds a photo of her brother, Cesar Rodriguez, who was killed by a train while interacting with the Long Beach Police regarding fare evasion. Rodriguez' mother, Rosa Moreno (seated, in the black shirt), looks on as her daughter speaks. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Evelia Granados holds a photo of her brother, Cesar Rodriguez, who was killed by a train while interacting with the Long Beach Police regarding fare evasion. Rodriguez’ mother, Rosa Moreno (seated, in the black shirt), looks on as her daughter speaks. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

We all deserve safety and security and, yes, fewer feet on seats as we try to get where we are going. And law enforcement can play a part in that.

But fulfilling that mandate means recognizing that where some riders might feel reassured to see armed officers on board a train, others might feel unsettled or, as some have expressed to me, like they are living in an oppressive police state.

It also means recognizing that because of law enforcement’s history of repression in the neighborhoods where Metro’s core ridership resides, there is both a greater potential for more antagonistic encounters between officers and members of those communities and a greater likelihood that members of those communities will be perceived as posing a threat.

And as boardmember Butts’ own testimony implied, the fact that officers are armed makes it all the more likely that “threats” will be seen to be lurking everywhere and that officers will be all the more inclined to respond accordingly.

In the lead-up to last year’s approval of the policing contract between Metro, the LAPD, the Sheriff’s Department, and the Long Beach Police Department, there was very little in the way of meaningful engagement around what safety and security for all meant in practice.

Since then, it appears that most of Metro’s public engagement on this issue has been with Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC) – the group that has filed civil rights complaints and lawsuits against Metro and that has demanded that law enforcement be removed from transit altogether. While the LCSC represents an important voice, they’re hardly the only one Metro needs to be engaging.

The approval of a new equity framework affords Metro an important opportunity to revisit the question of what it means to make riders of all stripes feel welcome on transit and to establish a new process to allow for innovation, trust-building, and accountability around safety as the system grows.

Not just because the enforcement of code of conduct violations should not end in scrums. But because all the good work put into centering the needs of lower-income riders of color will be for naught if the presence of law enforcement discourages them from riding.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    The vast majority of the tens of thousands of cop/civilian interactions that occur each day are civil and unremarkable.

  • sahra

    You are making that equation, and you have accused me of making this equation a couple of times…I don’t understand why because it’s not one I make.

    I am looking at questions of discretion in policing and the potential for incidents to escalate, for code of conduct violations (real or perceived) to be used against youth of color (run warrant checks, get folks in the system, conduct unlawful searches and then ticket them w/ a violation as a way to justify the search…things that happen daily on the streets at the hands of the very same departments tasked with working the trains). I am asking if there aren’t ways to ensure codes of conduct are enforced while also safeguarding against the abuse of authority. And, if we shouldn’t be able to expect that people paid to engage folks on compliance have the capacity – the know-how, the training, an arsenal of tools at their disposal – to be the professional adult in the situation.

    You, like me, might be brown, but I would wager that neither of us is regularly stopped and asked to lift up our shirts, spread our legs, face the wall, explain our tattoos, or talk about our parole/probation/arrest history, subjected to invasive pat downs and unlawful searches, interrogated about where we are going, threatened with arrest, silenced every time we raise a question, or detained for long periods of time without being told why. For youth and even older men who are regularly treated this way in the streets, it’s unsettling to see so many officers on transit. I frankly don’t understand why our readership steadfastly struggles to acknowledge or consider this reality.

    Because we can do both – we can acknowledge that reality and try to work with it even as we look to see codes of conduct enforced. It isn’t a zero-sum game and folks need to stop viewing it as such.

  • sahra

    “The police demand respect from People of Color and People of Color demand respect from the police. This has led to escalations and generational mistrust. But with Equity comes responsibility. Equitable police enforcement means everybody needs to follow the same rules.”

    I don’t even know what to do with this kind of whitewashing of the history of law enforcement and communities of color and complete misread of what equity is. Sadly, it’s not even the most ignorant and/or shameful take on race or equity I’ve ever seen pop up in our threads, but it’s really, really, really close.


  • Nancy Johnson

    Metro’s core ridership appears to be the problem in this equation. The scope of the problem determines the amount of enforcement necessary to curb the problem.

    You continue to claim that you are not condoning fare evasion and bad behavior, yet your commentaries only seem to focus on criticizing the enforcement and not those engaging in the behavior.

  • sahra

    The questions I’ve raised are about Metro’s failure to entertain a dialogue regarding how “enforcement” should be approached so that violations can be addressed without exacerbating existing tensions, facilitating abuses of authority, and causing undue harm to communities that are struggling.

    Your comments suggest there is only one way to conduct enforcement, and that’s simply not the case. Even within LAPD, there are areas (Watts, Harvard Park) where a more community-oriented approach has yielded better results and built a measure of trust with residents. There also was no spike in lawlessness that I am aware of when Metro took law enforcement off the trains altogether and put TSOs in their place for several months last year.

    Metro has a genuinely difficult task – it must make transit feel “safe” for folks of privilege who are not used to rubbing shoulders with folks of other stripes and address genuine safety and security concerns. And it must also continue to serve those from disenfranchised communities and those who are struggling, including some who are homeless and/or mentally ill. That’s a huge spectrum of needs to accommodate. Which makes it all the more astounding that this hasn’t been more carefully considered. Some effort has been made to take a different tack when it comes to engaging homeless folks – mainly as a way to try to get them services (while also, it seems, making them less of a “nuisance” to other passengers). So, it can be done. It shouldn’t take lawsuits from FFSC to force Metro to think about these things in a more comprehensive way…especially now that they have an equity platform.

  • jcovarru

    This is all very simple. The officer is there to enforce the laws and regulations. The laws and regulations say: no feet on the seats. If a passenger violates the laws and regulations, the officer may remove her from the train and give her a citation. If she physically resists the enforcement of the law, she is subject to arrest. I am glad the officer enforced the law. Proportionality in this case does not refer to the feet on the seat: it refers to her physically fighting the police officer doing his job. She did not beat the passenger: she removed an angry, resisting passenger from the train.

    I don’t see how this is a matter of equity or access, at all. I don’t care of the woman is brown, white, black or purple: the code of conduct has been posted for all to see and abide by. It is there for all of our benefit.
    As for the passenger in Long Beach who fled the officer, fell off the platform, and was killed by a train: how is that the officer’s fault? The person decided to flee, and he is unfortunately now dead. Are we saying that the police can’t detain anyone anymore, for any reason? Or, does it mean that members of certain groups who have been historically mistreated now get to break the rules with impunity?

  • jcovarru

    I do. The officer asked the woman to remove her feet from the seat. The officer asked the woman to get off the train. In both cases, she was extremely rude and *uncivilized*. The officer than took appropriate action: he removed her from the train. He did not take out a baton and beat her: he enforced the code of conduct using the least amount of violence required. That is his job. You are not free to break the law, no matter who you are or what your ethnic/class background is.

  • sahra

    Honestly, I can’t continue to respond to folks who appear to willfully miss the point being made…which is not that violations can’t be enforced but that, because of the history of law enforcement in the communities that comprise Metro’s core ridership and the discretionary nature of code enforcement that could facilitate abuses of authority, that there should be a dialogue regarding approaches to enforcement and accountability. It’s a really basic thing. Yet this comments board has filled up with folks who either seek to deny the significance of the abuses perpetrated by law enforcement in communities of color and/or who think there is only way to do enforcement (no room for deescalation, no room for engagement, no room trust-building, no space for code of conduct enforcement by TSOs, etc.). I would find it be bizarre if it wasn’t such a predictable response from our readership. Instead, I just find it exhausting and depressing.

  • Nancy Johnson

    Because not everything requires dialogue. This issue is very simple, Metro’s core ridership needs to pay the fare and follow the rules. Once they do that, there is no need for significant law enforcement presence on the trains and the problem solves itself.

  • Nancy Johnson

    You are attempting to raise issues based on claims of systematic racism, police abuses, disenfranchised communities, the plight of the mentally ill and the homeless. And yet this incident involved a privileged millennial who wouldn’t take her shoe off of a seat.

  • sahra

    Dman, you’re killing me with your outright refusal or wholesale inability – at this point I genuinely can’t tell which it is and I don’t know which is more troubling – to follow a basic argument. We’ll have to leave it here.

    All my best,


  • Hugh Shepard

    I wasn’t suggesting that American citizens have the right to concealed carry of firearms. Rather, I was suggesting that the current situation is not that Americans are “giving up” there 2nd amendment rights, but rather that laws restricting gun ownership, whether restricting open carry, concealed carry, or whatever, have been lifted or made less strict across the nation over the last few decades across all 50 states.

  • bolwerk


  • bolwerk

    That’s only because of how dangerously unhinged many law enforcement officers are. It’s equally not a good idea to have them in the first place.

  • Ennnne

    If Metro wants to consider history – in regard to people of color, among everyone else – when it makes law enforcement policy, that seems like a very good idea.

    It seems to me though that that worthy issue isn’t relevant here, Sahra, which is why you are getting so much pushback. (Btw, editor(s) of la. streetsblog: did anyone actually say, “burn the witch?” Because if they didn’t, I kinda hate that title.)

    I will say though, there was no sound in the video I watched – plus it started after the *all-important* initial phase of this incident. So, I am not at a juror-level of certainty here.

    However, as reported … I don’t have a problem with what happened. And this doesn’t make me a racist, however many long, well-reasoned arguments you try to attach to this. (I also don’t think all that badly of the kid – we all have bad days. I will give her the benefit of the doubt that she’s not always like that.)

    As for your identity, that’s your business. I consider you a *reporter.* There is no higher calling. (I don’t actually know how you view yourself.) As such, your role is to ask questions. You have a great beat. You ask good questions. In this case, I think … this isn’t the hill to die on, so to speak.

  • Jerome Harvey

    So because she is “of color”, you are saying it should be dismissed. After all people ” of color” are disproportionately affected. Because you “people of color” are a drain. No more escuses!!!! Abide, conform or go

  • Jerome Harvey

    Not how it goeth. Next time it’s a hundred burning cars and looting stores. Because she was asked to remove her feet from a seat!!@!!

  • Jerome Harvey

    Know what wiuld have de-escalated the event. Take your fucking foot off the seat.

  • Jerome Harvey

    Hell yeah!!!! Lets have dangerously unhinged idiots do what they want right. No policing in black communities.

  • sahra

    I think the pushback comes from the fact that people think I am labeling this event as a profiling incident and it colors how they see the rest of the arguments presented. I am not. The fault may be mine – I may not have made my position clear enough. But I’ve written so much about policing and it is in the news so much that I expect folks to have some sophistication on this topic at this point…even though I know that being profiled is something that the majority of our most vocal readers have zero familiarity with. Still, I assumed folks would be able to see that I am looking at this incident and saying, in essence, that if this is how our *best*-case scenarios unfold – how the easiest and lowest-possible-stakes encounters are handled – then not only does it point out how little communication Metro has had with officers regarding how to police the code of conduct and how little training they appear to have had with regard to managing situations to avoid escalation, it raises questions about how lower-income black and brown men, the mentally ill, the homeless, etc. are likely to be treated, especially when officers think no one is looking. It’s a really basic thing and it has very little to do with this girl…which means there’s no hill and nobody’s dying on it.

  • Ennnne

    Well, except … when we say that something “raises questions,” this usually means we think something went wrong, something should have been done better. You appear to think the officer should have done something differently … but what could it have been? If you can’t think of anything, after all this time, what does that say?

    My guess is … and it’s just a guess, but it’s a fun thought experiment … that if we had a focus group of 100 young men of color who had ever fare-evaded, they too would not support this behavior. I don’t know what the percentage would be, but I say, less than half. Being poor and being a person of color don’t have diddly to do with being so rude as to put one’s feet on a seat. And then, to do it again. And then, to argue about it.

    These are two different groups of people. I have a ton of sympathy for “fare evasion” … I am not sure I think it should be an offense, if you’re poor. Who cares? People need to go places.

    If she or her lawyer get so much as a dime, I will have *even less* respect for the Metro board.

    This person wasn’t beaten, she wasn’t taken into custody, all that happened was she got taken off a train and she got a ticket. That’s all. If we want to talk privilege, if she’d been a young man, she might still be in jail for the exact same behavior. (I’d like to think not, but who knows.) She was in the wrong from start to finish.

    If you’re going to keep saying there is something else the officer should have done, then what was it?

  • sahra

    Yes, the officer could have done better. I’ve said so several times now and offered up critiques from Dupont-Walker and Solis and even Butts, in addition to my own. I’m not sure what else you’re looking for. Or what that somewhat alarming focus group thought experiment is about.

  • Ennnne

    Well, first i want to apologize for my tone – this thing does make me frustrated, but I shouldn’t take it out on you.

    I guess I don’t find fare-evaders alarming, at least in theory. Anyhow, my point was, it’s one thing to just be poor. It’s another to … yadda yadda yadda.

    I don’t remember any *specific* suggestions you made. I’ll go look. As for the other folk, their thoughts didn’t impress me either. Though again, we are operating with less-than ideal information.

  • Ennnne

    So, I skimmed again. Someone, I don’t know who, thinks the officer shouldn’t have been alone. Fair enough – that’s not his fault though.

    And you, I believe, question whether to put armed police on the trains at all. I can’t say I see it as a big deal, since I have *never* seen an armed officer on the Red Line when I’ve ridden. It is specific though, so I missed that one, I’m sorry. (I also don’t agree – but I’ll think about it more. What’s the rush?)

  • Oh boo hoo hoo. Time to break some brats. Bravo for Metro.


Balancing Safety, Security, and Saturation on the Blue Line

“Nobody uses it,” Liz told me. “There’s dookies in there!” She was referring to the 53rd St. pedestrian bridge connecting the two halves of the Pueblo del Rio housing development split by the four sets of Blue Line and Pacific Rail train tracks. Dookies, piss, and people waiting to relieve you of your possessions — […]

Box: Metrolink Passes Bike Friendly Test

(This is the first in a three-part series from Stephen Box.  In the coming weeks he’ll be discussing the bike (and passenger) friendliness of Metro Rail and Amtrak. – DN) When I embark on a #BikeTrain adventure, I typically put my train-boarding theory to work by heading for the front car. I believe that this […]

Did Metro Build a Perpetual Motion Machine?

Even if you’ve never seen “The Seven Year Itch,” you probably know the bit where Marilyn Monroe’s skirt is blown by a subway train. Her skirt lifts because subway trains generate wind–lots of wind. Metro has a “Sustainable Rail Plan” under which its staff looks for ways to reduce power consumption. Cris Liban is Deputy Executive Officer for Environmental […]