LA County unveils 'Transit Ambassadors' program as alternative to armed officers

The team will be equipped with radios to call in social workers or other support teams

By Steve Scauzillo
Daily Breeze, Torrance, Calif.

LOS ANGELES — For Derek White, a middle-aged, well-built man and regular rider of LA Metro trains and buses, hopping on public transit can cause an uneasy feeling, making him feel vulnerable to attack.

White, a Lancaster resident who last week was waiting to catch a Metro bus after exiting the L Line light rail (formerly Gold Line) in central Pasadena, said seeing more homeless and mentally ill people makes him uneasy. "It is during those times when I feel unsafe," he said.

An LAPD officer patrols Union Station Tuesday, June 28, 2022. LA Metro is working on contracts with vendors to begin a first-ever program: LA Metro Ambassadors, an unarmed patrol team equipped with radios to call in homeless social workers or other support teams.
An LAPD officer patrols Union Station Tuesday, June 28, 2022. LA Metro is working on contracts with vendors to begin a first-ever program: LA Metro Ambassadors, an unarmed patrol team equipped with radios to call in homeless social workers or other support teams. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

While homeless persons have assaulted riders, mostly it's the unhoused who are more vulnerable to assault, officials say. But since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of unhoused people on LA Metro trains and buses — and encamped near bus stops and train stations — has increased. The rate of crime is also up, though overall incidents are down, officials say.

Nonetheless, the nexus between riders and would-be riders feeling unsafe, and a disproportionate number of citations and arrests involving Black and Latino riders accused of fare evasion and other infractions, has led to calls for a third way to police the system and drive up ridership.

Last week, the LA Metro Board answered by inking two contracts for up to $122 million, creating a Transit Ambassadors program, a first for LA Metro.

About 300 friendly, welcoming guides will become the newest sets of eyes and ears, an unarmed patrol team equipped with radios to call in homeless social workers or other support teams. Asking for law enforcement would be a last resort, according to Metro. Mostly, an ambassador will be a friendly face, directing passengers to elevators, turnstiles and bus stops, while helping customers pay their fares by showing them how to use fare vending machines, TAP cards and various transit apps, Metro reported.

"We are creating a culture in which the ambassadors are the front line, managing the lion's share of incidents in transit," said Holly Mitchell, Los Angeles County Supervisor and LA Metro board member, who voted for the program. "We reserve law enforcement and armed responses to those incidents that truly warrant it — and fare evasion is not one of those."

Crime and critics

Crime within 140 bus lines, two bus rapid transit lines, four light-rail lines, and two subways in 2021 amounted to five crimes per million boardings. That was up when compared with 3.82 crimes per million boardings in 2019, according to LA Metro data. But while the rate is higher, the actual number of crimes decreased by about 12%.

Total boardings systemwide reached 21.5 million in May 2022, up from 17.9 million in May 2021 and 12 million in May 2020. Aside from worries over COVID transmission, some see homelessness and the perception of rampant crime as holding back the system's ridership level.

An attempted murder on Jan. 29, 2021, occurred at the L Line Indiana Station. A placard outside the Lake Avenue L Line station asks for information that may identify the suspect who walked to the cab window and, unprovoked, shot the train operator two times through the glass.

A man was stabbed to death on the Gold Line train in 2018, and in January 2020, Peter Munoz, 52 of Commerce pleaded guilty to that first-degree murder. Xuezhong Bao, 62, of Azusa was murdered as he traveled on the train from Azusa to Irwindale on Nov. 27, 2018.

That stabbing still haunts Azusa Mayor Robert Gonzales, who mentioned it in an interview on Thursday, June 29. He also spoke about the increase in unhoused people on the trains that stop at two Azusa stations. He said the city is working toward funding a homeless resources center to provide wraparound services for those in need.

Azusa's increase in unhoused individuals is tied to two L-Line factors. First, between March 2020 and January 2022, no fares were collected, resulting in homeless individuals riding the air-conditioned/heated train cars for free. "The unhoused used it as a mobile shelter. So other folks didn't want to get on that thing," Gonzales said.

Second, the homeless riders were told by law enforcement they wouldn't be arrested or cited if they got off when the train stopped, he said. Azusa is the eastern end of the line which originates in East Los Angeles and includes stops at Union Station in downtown LA, Highland Park and Pasadena. But the line is being constructed for another 9.1 miles and will reach Glendora, San Dimas, La Verne and Pomona by January 2025.

"We'd ask: 'How did you end up in Azusa?' They said: 'Law enforcement says when it stops, get off.' So since we are at the end of the line, at 2 a.m. when the train service stops, they will spill out into our streets. The word is at 2 a.m., that is where the party starts," Gonzales said.

Despite the problems, Gonzales sees the light-rail as a plus for the region and his city. His police department has been working with Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies who are addressing the county's homeless situation. Gonzales said the situation has improved in Azusa since fare collection was re-instituted by LA Metro in January, and ridership has increased.

He welcomes the idea of adding transit ambassadors.

"Anything that can support enforcement and bring an extra layer of resources is always a good thing," he said. "I am cautiously optimistic."

The loudest critic of the ambassadors program is Sheriff Alex Villanueva. "We need deputies on trains/busses, not ambassadors — arrests/citations, not a Metro Court," he announced on Twitter in late April, about the same time a video montage of crime incidents on LA Metro from last year was released by the media. The transit agency denounced the video, saying it did not represent an accurate picture of the system's safety record.

La Puente City Councilman David Argudo, who ran unsuccessfully for the First District County Board of Supervisors in June and supports the sheriff, criticized the ambassador program. He wanted to see an increase in sheriff's deputies and traditional enforcement methods instead. "I think ridership might decrease and crime might increase," he said.

Redefining transit patrols

LA Metro is contracting with Strive Well-Being to supply 55 ambassadors to be placed at Union Station, Metro's main transit hub in downtown Los Angeles, and at train station elevators. The three-year cost is $15,878,421.

A larger contract will go to RMI International Inc. for 244 ambassador positions placed throughout the Metro system. The three-year cost equals $55,400,768. The combined total is 299 ambassadors for three years for $71,279,189. If these contracts get extended two more years, the five-year cost would reach about $123 million. The program is scheduled to run from Aug. 1, 2022, to July 30, 2025, with the placement of ambassadors on the system this fall, according to Metro.

Transit ambassadors are patterned after a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) program that adds an extra layer to public safety programs.

Starting Friday, July 1, the new contract with the Sheriff's Department begins at a cost of $71.5 million. LA Metro also contracts with LAPD and Long Beach PD for police patrols on buses and trains in those cities. Also, Metro has its own security system team that enforces proper codes of conduct on transit.

In the action passed by the board on Nov. 18, 2021 that gave the initial go-ahead, the ambassadors' function was seen as a path to move away from traditional law enforcement, in part in reaction to racial discriminatory practices. "On Metro's own system, fare and code of conduct enforcement has also disproportionately targeted Black and Latino riders," read the board motion.

Desarae Jones, project manager for the program, sees the ambassadors taking a different approach to fare evaders or those who are acting inappropriately on transit.

"We heard from riders that law enforcement — especially those not normally assigned to transit duty — that there is profiling," Jones said.

If someone doesn't have a fare, instead of citations and arrests, an ambassador will show the customer how to use the fare vending machine. Also, the ambassador would explain the app for Micro Transit, a Metro ride-share service that costs $1 a ride, Jones said.

If there's a complaint about a homeless person, instead of dispatching armed police or sheriff deputies, the ambassadors can call in the Crisis Response Team. Metro is putting $10 million toward that program and will partner with the LA County Department of Public Health, Jones said.

"We all acknowledge sending armed law enforcement into the middle of a health crisis is not the thing to do," said Supervisor Mitchell. "It is not just about calling the police. It is calling people who are better equipped."

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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