Sheriff Villanueva Is Opposing Metro’s Slow Moves Toward Transit Policing Reform

LAPD patrolling Metro - capture from 2017 Metro video
LAPD patrolling Metro - capture from 2017 Metro video

For the past year, Metro has been planning some reforms to its transit policing. Though much of these reforms are not even fleshed out, over the past week, new developments and old conflicts have come into clearer light. With a six-month extension on a policing contract before the board – and with opposition from a Metro advisory committee to renewing the existing contract – L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva went on the offensive, hosting a press conference and exaggeratedly sounding the alarm against “carnage on the trains” and Metro’s “woke culture.”

Metro transit policing will be on next week’s December 2 full Metro board meeting [agenda], though policing reform will continue to be before the board intermittently over the coming year as Metro’s five-year multi-agency policing contract comes up for renewal.

In 2020, the Metro board approved the formation of a Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) to develop a community-based approach to public safety on the transit system, including shifting resources away from armed law enforcement toward alternatives including a transit ambassador program and outreach to the unhoused. The PSAC’s work was timed to come up with alternatives in advance of Metro renewing its three-agency (LAPD, LASD, and Long Beach PD) transit policing contract, which will end in mid-2022.

The PSAC first met in April 2021, and has continued meeting twice a month to come up with recommendations.

On November 3 [Meeting video – starting at 1:01:15], the PSAC unanimously voted to recommend against the Metro board approving a staff-recommended item [staff report] to allocate an additional $75 million for cost overruns on the remaining portion of the current policing contract, as well as against approving a six-month contract extension with an option for a second six month extension.

Last Wednesday, Sheriff Villanueva hosted a press conference [watch via Facebook] where he spoke against the PSAC as “the definition of a woke advisory group” and warned of dire consequences if Metro doesn’t continue and expand its current transit system policing. Villanueva characterized the PSAC (advisory) vote as a proposal for “abolishing all three policing contracts” including zeroing out LASD personnel.

Villanueva shared a list of PSAC members with their questionable “woke” affiliations highlighted, including: “racial justice,” “equity,” “civil rights,” “Community Transit,” “homeless committee chair,” and even “urban planner” and “creative director.”

Metro PSAC
Metro PSAC slide from LASD press conference

Sheriff Villanueva spoke about violence on Metro, describing in detail several videos of “people getting killed, raped, robbed on the system.” He shared an email from Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins directing LASD not to show the videos at the press conference, stating that doing so would violate the transit policing contract. Villanueva urged reporters to submit a public records request to obtain the videos from Metro.

The Sheriff’s press conference included quite of bit of false and misleading information. An LASD representative stated that the Metro contract was “covering 102 cities” – though Metro serves L.A. County, which only has 88 cities, not all of which have rail or bus service. The 102 total appears to be the Metrolink commuter rail policing contract, not Metro.

“If there’s no safety… people don’t ride the subways, the trains, buses – and it shows,” Villanueva stated, sharing a ridership graph that bore little relation to Metro’s own ridership numbers.

Sheriff Villanueva xxxx
At last week’s press event, Sheriff Villanueva presented this error-ridden graph that shows Metro ridership hitting zero in 2022. For the red numbers, LASD used the calendar year 2019 and 2020 (when ridership dropped due to COVID), and added a misleadingly low mid-year 2021 year-to-date figure. The red numbers in the graph correspond to those calendar year figures, but the graphed data points don’t correspond to the red numbers. Metro’s pre-COVID ridership was ~400 million annually (see graphs below), though LASD shows 2019 ridership at over 700 million. The LASD graph shows Metro rail ridership higher than bus, though bus ridership is more than three-quarters of total ridership. Graphed rail totals plus bus totals do not correspond to overall totals.
Annual Metro ridership by calendar year - via Metro ridership statistics webpage
Annual Metro ridership by calendar year – via Metro ridership statistics webpage. 2020 and 2019 figures correspond to the red numbers written on the LASD graph
Metro ridership totals xxxx
Metro’s own ridership graphs (from staff report) show an early 2020 dip, due to COVID, with ridership recovering to about three-quarters of pre-COVID levels during calendar year 2021

To the extent that they’re true, these videos and ridership statistics make the case that there are problems not being solved under the current transit policing contract, which Villanueva wants renewed and expanded.

The policing contract extension – plus other security items and the sheriff’s statements – were discussed by Metro boardmembers at their Operations Committee meeting last Thursday [meeting video].

Numerous Metro boardmembers expressed their support for the PSAC and their disappointment with Villanueva’s statements to the press. For the most part, this was unsurprising, because Villanueva has clashed with the County Board of Supervisors (who all serve on the Metro board) – as well as with Metro boardmember and L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin, over issues with unhoused people in Venice Beach. What was somewhat unexpected was a strong anti-LASD response from boardmember James Butts, the current mayor of Inglewood and a former police chief.

Ultimately the committee took no action on the policing items, pushing them off to a vote at the December 2 full Metro board meeting.

Bonin introduced the contract extension item, thanking the PSAC and noting that because the sheriff “attacked” and “maligned” them, they “join very distinguished company, like pretty much everybody who’s a member of this committee.” Bonin further noted the sheriff’s words were unfair and untrue. Bonin later stated that he “couldn’t think of a more effective argument for reimagining policing” than the statements made by Villanueva at the press conference.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl echoed Bonin, terming the Sheriff’s criticism “a badge of honor.” Supervisor Holly Mitchell expressed her appreciation to the PSAC, and noted her sadness at the situation, saying that Villanueva’s behavior was “reminiscent of Bull Connor [the mid-20th century anti-civil-rights Birmingham Alabama police commissioner.]” Supervisor Janice Hahn apologized to PSAC members.

Mayor Butts, who had last year expressed skepticism about Metro transitioning away from its current policing model, expressed some of the strongest criticism of Sheriff Villanueva. Butts called the LASD press event a “disgraceful” “political exercise” and a “public acknowledgement that he failed to prevent these crimes.”

Several boardmembers who are supportive of reimagining public safety pointed out another reason that the Sheriff’s statements were wrong and inflammatory. In the words of Hahn, “no one is talking about getting rid of all law enforcement.”

Noting current issues with law enforcement vaccine hesitancy, Supervisor Hahn also urged that the Metro board require contracted law enforcement to conform to the same vaccination requirements that apply to Metro staff. Hahn’s vaccination motion, along with the policing contract extension and other policing items, will be heard at next week’s full board meeting.

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