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No Cops on LA Transit

A call to action to get LAPD off of Metro for good

This post was originally published on Transiting Los Angeles.

On the evening of May 30th, 2020, as protests following the murder of George Floyd took place across Los Angeles, Metro abruptly suspended all transit service across the entire countywide system, stranding riders across the city. To add insult to injury, it came out that Metro lent several buses to law enforcement to transport detained protesters.

Metro’s public apology a couple of days later didn’t make anything any better. In a rather tone-deaf statement, their PR staff wrote, “We recognize the incongruent and unfortunate optics of this situation,” as if the optics of the situation could possibly concern anyone who wasn’t Metro management or in the marketing department. While Metro tried to justify their decision by citing “The safety of our riders and our staff,” they couldn’t offer an explanation for why the entire county had to be denied transit service, including communities far away from any protest or police activity, or how stranding riders with virtually no advance notice meaningfully furthered public safety. In the chaos of May 30th, riders were offered no guidance, and the only thing Metro offered was reimbursement for Uber/Lyft/taxi trips after-the-fact.

As for lending buses to the police, Metro’s excuse was that they are “required by law to provide mutual aid in times of emergencies.” The term “mutual aid” is incredibly telling and ironic. Aiding bloated and weaponized police forces takes higher precedent over aiding regular people by… you know, providing them transit. Metro considers the police mutuals, but not you.

What has followed has been confusion, anger, well-justified criticism both in the media and on social media, and a renewed attention on Metro’s uncomfortably close relationship with the police. This is an issue that has been bubbling beneath the surface for many years. In this post, we’re going to offer a brief overview of the consequences of Metro’s relationship with police, why we feel that police should not be present on transit, and something that you can do about it.

In 2017, Metro’s board of directors approved a five-year contract with the LAPD, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, and the Long Beach Police Department to patrol Metro’s facilities, stations, and vehicles, with duties split between the three agencies based on jurisdiction. The cost of this contract is $646 million, or nearly $130 million annually.

When you combine that with Metro’s own police force and the money they spend on private contractor RMI Security, Metro is spending $797 million on law enforcement between 2017 and 2022. Nearly four-fifths of a billion dollars just for cops.

The actual benefit to transit riders from all this money spent isn’t very clear. Despite Metro’s massive expenditure on law enforcement, there’s nothing to show that it has made the transit system safer. Metro is eager to point to declining rates of crime on their system to justify their spending, but these fit nationwide trends and don’t necessarily prove that it’s thanks to higher policing. Rather perversely, the lower rates of crime become a justification to spend more on police, not less.

Safety is a major concern of Metro riders, particularly women. Last year, an in-house report found that safety was the primary barrier to riding transit for women. Following the release of this report, LAist published an article that included 25 accounts of sexual harassment on Metro, selected from over 100 stories submitted by LAist readers. A common thread across many of these accounts was how inadequate Metro Security was in preventing or addressing these incidents.

But while there’s nothing to show that all this policing actually prevents crime, there is some clear evidence to point to that suggests that Metro’s law enforcement has an established pattern of criminalizing poverty and harassing people of color. Back in 2017, the Labor/Community Strategy Center (most famous for being the parent organization of the Bus Riders Union) filed a civil rights suit against Metro. The transit agency’s own data showed that Black people were more likely to be targeted than Whites. Despite making up less than 20 percent of Metro’s riders, Black riders received half of all citations and made up nearly 60 percent of the arrests between 2009 and 2016, with a significant portion of those citations and arrests taking place along the Blue Line.

Fare enforcement is the most typical pretext used to harass people of color, but it’s not the only one. Back in January 2018, In a much-publicized incident that was caught on camera, a LAPD officer dragged a teenage girl off a Red Line train for having her feet up on a seat, despite fellow riders pleading for the officer to stop. The overzealous policing in this incident was so apparent that even some Metro officials couldn’t bring themselves to defend it. County supervisor Hilda Solis, who’s on the Metro board, “said the incident made her question whether staffing only uniformed police officers was the best way to keep Metro vehicles safe,” according to CurbedLA.

In a particularly horrifying incident on August 29, 2017, 23-year old Cesar Rodriguez was crushed to death by a Blue Line train while fleeing Long Beach police officers who suspected him of fare evasion. The circumstances of this incident were extremely suspect, and the family was given several different conflicting accounts with no clear answers. It took a year for security footage of the incident to emerge, and what it appeared to show was one of the officers tackling Rodriguez to the ground and putting him in harm’s way.

So to recap: Metro is spending tons of money on police, it doesn’t seem to be making transit safer, and people of color are being criminalized.

So here’s one piece of good news. Instead of the usual knee-jerk reactions to defend law enforcement, public officials across the country are starting to rethink how community safety can be managed without armed police. Here in Los Angeles, the city council is looking at a motion directing the LAPD to shift nonviolent calls for service to unarmed social workers.

This week, Metro’s board of directors will have their first full meeting since the May 30th debacle. On the agenda is a suite of motions in response to the fallout:

  • A motion to direct Metro to develop specific criteria for system shutdowns and protocol on how to notify riders and provide alternative means of transportation
  • Another to examine the mutual aid agreements that Metro cited as the reason why they had to provide buses to the LAPD
  • A motion that would require a review of the use of force policies used by the law enforcement agencies that police Metro
  • And finally, most intriguingly of all, a motion introduced by Metro board member Mike Bonin (who is also on the LA City Council) that would form a committee to study shifting resources away from armed law enforcement and towards unarmed personnel. Among the specific measures suggested by this measure are transit ambassadors, who would provide a staffed presence to maintain safety, supporting street vending, and adopting more social workers to handle outreach to homeless individuals.

This is all pointing in the right direction, and there’s actually evidence to show that measures like unarmed transit ambassadors and social workers are more effective at keeping transit safe than armed police. If the best means of crime prevention is to have eyes and ears everywhere, what’s more cost-effective: a pair of beefed-up cops armed to the teeth and likely working overtime, or several unarmed ambassadors?

Last week, ACT-LA called on Metro to disinvest from the police and use money spent on law enforcement on improving transit, hiring more social workers, and creating a transit ambassador program.

These are great developments, but we also want to take this a step further. After all, these motions are still just for committees and studies, not actual actions. There’s still the risk of nothing coming out of this, or of any proposals being severely watered down. The board hasn’t even met yet, and already one of them was quoted that Metro will “probably always have a layer of law enforcement or police that may be armed.”

We need to push back and demand more of Metro. For years, the Labor/Community Strategy Center has been campaigning for the end of policing on Metro under the slogan “1,000 More Buses, 1,000 Less Police.” Last week saw popular campaigns calling for the removal of the LAPD from LAUSD schools and the Los Angeles Public Library. In the spirit of these campaigns, we now call upon the same of Metro.

Our demand is simple: we want No Cops on Transit. We are calling on Metro to stop funding law enforcement and cut ties with the police. This means no more transit cops and no more contracts with LAPD, LA County Sheriff’s Department, other local police departments, or private security forces.

Instead of armed police, we call upon Metro to invest in other safety measures, such as the social workers and transit ambassadors suggested by Bonin’s motion, to provide the safety riders need without the danger posed by police. This motion is the first step, but we need Metro to act more decisively.

And if you’ve read this far, we call upon you to join us. This month’s Metro board meeting will be held this Thursday, June 25th, at 10am. Public comments can be accepted by email before the meeting, or on the board meeting webpage during the meeting.

To make things easy, we have composed a pre-addressed email for you to send to the Metro board, and a sample email we have written below to copy/paste (or if mailto links don’t work for you, send to email hidden; JavaScript is required and as many board members as you desire). Feel free to personalize this sample or even write your own email. But most importantly, please share this message and join us in calling on Metro to cut ties with the police and create a safer system for all of our fellow riders.

Please feel free to share!

To the Metro Board of Directors,

Regular Board Meeting, June 25, 2020, General Comment

Metro’s grossly negligent actions on May 30th highlighted the agency’s close relationship with local law enforcement agencies, and it’s long past due that we reevaluate that relationship.

Between 2017 and 2022, Metro will spend at least $790 million on policing across its transit system. Yet for all that money, it’s not at all clear what the benefits to transit riders are. Safety is still the primary barrier to riding for women riders, with the risk of sexual harassment still a major concern — and this is according to Metro’s own study last year. Metro has pointed to lowering crime rates on its transit system as justification for the increased spending on police, but this drop in crime matches similar declines seen citywide and across the nation, and there’s no evidence that it’s thanks to the actions of the police. We are spending more than ever on police, yet it doesn’t even give riders the perception of a safer transit system.

What is clear is that the law enforcement agencies that Metro works with engage in systemic abuse of communities of color, and they have used Metro as a means of carrying out this agenda. It is Black and Brown riders who are far more likely to be targeted by the agencies that police our transit system — Metro’s own data has showed that it is Black riders who receive a vastly disproportionate amount of the citations by police. And this is to say nothing of the horrendous death of Cesar Rodriguez at the hands of police or the videotaped incident of a LAPD officer dragging a teenage girl off a train for having her feet up on a seat. Police are not making people of color any safer.

We believe that armed police have no place on board Metro. We approve of Council member Bonin’s motion (agenda item #37) to study shifting resources away from armed law enforcement to unarmed staff such as transit ambassadors and homeless outreach workers, and we believe this is a step in the right direction. But it is not enough.

In the spirit of the nationwide demand to disinvest from police, we call upon Metro to cut ties with all law enforcement. That means no more transit cops and no more contracts with LAPD, LA County Sheriff’s Department, other local police departments, or private security forces. Armed police on transit are not just dangerous, they are also a waste of money. It is time for Metro to utilize other — and more effective — means of keeping riders safe.

We demand No Cops on Transit.

Thank you,

[Your name], [Your city/state]