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Metro’s “Reimagining Public Safety” Proposal, First Step: Just Keep Paying Police and Sheriff

LAPD patrolling Metro – capture from 2017 Metro video

This week's Metro board committee meetings will mark the first in a series of big board decisions on the future of policing on the Metro system. Unfortunately, the current proposal [staff report] is effectively a three-year extension of the ~$130 million/year multi-agency contract negotiated back in 2017 rather than the fully-fleshed-out reimagined approach to public safety advocates and many transit users had hoped to see.

The failure to present a more comprehensive approach to public safety will be discussed at two Metro board committee meetings this Thursday: the 9 a.m. Executive Management Committee [agenda] and the 12:30 p.m. Operations, Safety, and Customer Experience Committee [agenda] - as well as next week's full board meeting [agenda].

The most generous read of the existing policing contract - set to expire in June 2023 and presently split between LAPD, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department (LASD), and Long Beach PD - is that it has yielded mixed results.

Metro had favored a multi-agency approach in 2017 because it promised to provide a more visible security presence for fewer dollars than what it was costing Metro to contract with just LASD at the time. It was also seen as a potential solution to the problems at the time, including the number of complaints about LASD's treatment of passengers and the constant battling between Metro and LASD over policing priorities.

But the criminalization of poverty continued largely unabated under the new regime. Code-of-conduct violations continued to be overpoliced and, in a horrific 2017 incident, 23-year-old César Rodríguez was crushed to death by an incoming train when an LBPD officer wrestled him to the ground while he was being detained for fare evasion.

Crime and deaths on the Metro system have unfortunately also been on the rise.

But instead of seeing those troubling data points as a sign of a failed approach, Metro law enforcement contractors and their supporters - most notably the L.A. Police Protective League and former L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva (repeatedly) - have used them to claim the solution could only be yet more police. Villanueva memorably raised the alarm about "carnage on the trains," predicted transit ridership would plummet to zero by 2022 if his deputies weren't allowed to police the system more aggressively, and then threatened to walk off the job if Metro didn't hand LASD the entire contract. And just last month, LAPPL attempted to blame the rise in drug-related deaths on the defunding of police, despite the fact that Metro had actually upped police funding in 2021, after law enforcement overshot their budget by 17 percent - $110 million.

The timing of the LAPPL's attack - just ahead of the new contract announcement - was likely no coincidence, as former Metro boardmember Mike Bonin explained:

The propaganda was no doubt fueled by fears that the multi-year "reimagining public safety" process Metro has engaged in (and law enforcement partners have dragged their heels on) since 2020 would succeed in shifting resources away from law enforcement and toward policing alternatives.

The launch of the pilot transit ambassador program in early March was one such step in that direction. So are Metro's plans to up homeless outreach efforts and the implementation of some new customer experience initiatives.

But all these are all in addition to plus-funding law enforcement.

The decision to stay the existing course by extending the current contract feels like a stalling tactic - one that Metro has been employing since 2021. And the incremental changes Metro has proposed, including adding 48 Transit Security Officers to its small standing force to "deter bus operator assaults and code of conduct violations" [staff report], is not nearly enough to satisfy advocates looking to see safety redefined and embedded in the system in new ways.

Transit advocates - mainly under the Alliance for Community Transit (ACT-LA) banner - are urging Metro to "end our harmful and failed reliance on policing transit - so that we can fund real safety strategies instead." ACT-LA urges interested folks to use this ACLU alert to submit comments to Metro, and to show up to an 11 a.m. in-person rally at Metro headquarters this Thursday.

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