Sheriff wants sole responsibility for transit policing

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — Calling the current shared system of policing Los Angeles County’s transit system a failure, Sheriff Alex Villanueva threatened to pull all his deputies from transit patrol duties on July 1 unless his department is awarded a contract to provide all policing on buses, trains and stations.

Pointing to what he called a rise in criminal activity on Metropolitan Transportation Authority transit lines and at stations, along with a growing issue of homeless people loitering or even living on trains, Villanueva said “the status quo is unacceptable. We’re not going to continue with it.”

Under a contract originally approved in 2017, policing duties on the MTA system are shared by the sheriff’s department and the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments.

Villanueva said his agency’s agreement with the MTA expires July 1, and the department notified the MTA April 13 it plans to bid for the full policing-services contract. The contract also will call for deputies to have full enforcement authority, including code of conduct violations such as trespassing, urinating, playing loud music and fare-evading — issues that the sheriff said have been shifted to MTA security guards or ambassadors in an effort to reduce law-enforcement presence on the system.

“We are going to bid on the entire contract,” he told reporters. “We’re not going to bid for parts of it. We’re not going to bid for the role of being overpaid security.”

The sheriff said that due to a hiring freeze in his department, the agency is approaching 1,000 vacancies, and he is more than willing to pull the 300 deputies currently assigned to the transit system and shift them to other duties to help fill the void.

“We have all of the personnel that are dedicated to the system — I have three jobs waiting for every single deputy,” he said. “I have the ability and the need to actually redeploy the personnel where they’re actually going to be sworn peace officers working as cops, actually saving lives, preventing crime from occurring and solving crimes that occur. This is all about public safety.”

He claimed the sheriff’s department contract proposal will be $30 million cheaper than the MTA’s current policing contracts. But he said full enforcement authority on the transit system will be required, and the issue “is not negotiable.”

“It’s going to be a contract where we’re going to enforce the code of conduct, fare evasion and the rule of law,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

MTA officials did not immediately comment on Villanueva’s announcement.

Last December the MTA board of directors increased its law-enforcement contract budgets, but also continued efforts to move toward a more community-based approach to public safety, relying on ambassadors and security guards to respond to basic conduct violations, rather than armed law-enforcement. The effort began in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, which set off a national re-evaluation of policing.

The MTA’s vision includes efforts such as transit ambassadors, elevator attendants and a flexible dispatch system to enable a response by homeless outreach workers, mental health specialists and unarmed security personnel.

Transit ambassadors would be trained in de-escalation and customer service to support transit workers and riders.

Villanueva pointed to various recent high-profile crimes on the MTA system, including people being pushed in front of oncoming trains by homeless people, shootings of passengers aboard trains, a recent knife attack at the Willowbrook station and a recent case of a homeless person who died on a train but wasn’t discovered for six hours.

He said the April 12 shooting aboard a New York subway train highlighted the need for comprehensive security systems on transit lines.

The LAPD issued a statement via Twitter April 13, insisting there has been a drop in violent crime on the MTA system from pre-pandemic levels.

“The safety of the MTA ridership has not wavered in significance for the Los Angeles Police Department since obtaining the MTA contract in 2017,” the LAPD statement said. “The men and women of the LAPD monitor trains, platforms and buses diligently each and every day around the clock.

“This is evident when comparing year to date pre-pandemic violent crime in 2019 to 2022 as there is a 22% decrease. This specifically translates to 47 less victims of a violent crime. We continue to collaborate with MTA, various employee unions, Amtrak and our law enforcement partners in LASD and Long Beach.”

Hours after his April 13 news conference, Villanueva issued a “clarification” statement to say, “At no time was I casting any dispersions upon the Los Angeles Police Protective League and the Los Angeles Police Department. My comments were directed at the decisions made by the city of Los Angeles and the MTA board and is no way a reflection on the brave men and women … who do an incredible job for the Angelenos they protect and serve.”

 

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