Patsaouras: Political Origins of LA's Transit Safety Challenges


The LA County Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) moved forward with a plan this week to create—or rather, reestablish— its in-house transit security force and ultimately move away from outsourced security contracts with the Los Angeles Police Department and LA County Sheriff’s Department, providing projected annual cost savings of $38 million. VX News shares this op-ed by former member and board president of the Southern California Rapid Transportation District (RTD) and MTA board, Nick Patsaouras, who outlines the historic and political origins of LA Metro’s policing contracts in the 1990s and subsequent degradation of security on the system. Highlighting the work of former MTA Police Chief Sharon Papa, Patsaouras highlights the necessity of having consistent, dedicated personnel specifically hired, trained, and deployed to work in and address crime, security, and quality of life challenges on LA’s transit system.

In a November 2016 editorial, the Los Angeles Times wrote, " Voters this month passed Measure M, a permanent sales tax increase that will fund one of the nation`s most ambitious and expensive transportation system expansions... The MTA hopes Measure M projects will eventually triple the number of regular transit riders. But Metro cannot hope to get more people into trains and buses unless the agency addresses a fundamental problem: Too many people are scared to ride public transit. During public forums on Measure M, people repeatedly asked why they never saw law enforcement or security officers at stations or around buses. Almost 30% of past riders left the system because they did not feel safe, according to a recent Metro survey. For years Metro`s leaders downplayed concerns over safety."

And that was 2016. Today there is no day going by that some transit riders do not complain to me, knowing my past relationship with the Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD) and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), that they don`t feel safe, telling me they never see a law enforcement officer on the buses and trains.

Dedicated police forces such as transit, airport and campus/school police have specialized training and provide a higher degree of safety, specifically addressing the unique needs of their environments. Transit safety in Los Angeles has suffered due to the purely political decision to disband the dedicated Transit Police force in favor of a contractual relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD).

There were several political agendas at play that led to the decision to disband the Transit Police in 1997. A dedicated funding stream for transit security was established due to an earmark in the Transportation Sales Tax that could only be used to enhance security on the system. Millions of dollars were now available to law enforcement agencies providing security to the transit system. Sheriff Sherman Block saw an opportunity to establish the largest policing contract in the history of his Department, both in size and revenue stream. He had a built-in-advantage in swaying votes on the MTA Board, since all five of the County Supervisors were members of the MTA Board and those transportation dollars would go to the County coffers if the LASD provided security services to the transit system. 

Concurrently, Mayor Richard Riordan, who controlled four votes on the MTA Board, also saw an opportunity to tap into those funds and enhance his ability to keep a campaign promise of "3,000 more police officers" to expand the size of the LAPD by merging the existing MTA Transit Police Officers into LAPD. It represented an immediate boost of additional officers during a very difficult recruiting period. He also saw the opportunity to funnel transit dollars into the LAPD budget.

A Request for Proposals (RFP) from the LAPD and LASD for police services was conducted, which clearly showed those agencies to be far more expensive. Their pay and benefit packages were far more costly than the MTA Police Department. The justification to move forward anyway was the "economy of scale" argument that MTA would no longer have the overhead of their own command staff and police chief, and MTA would get additional services such as bomb squad and SWAT, as needed. No one wanted to acknowledge that those services were already provided at no cost, as part of existing mutual aid agreements.

Despite the very facts that Transit Police officers were specifically recruited, screened and hired to work exclusively for the transportation system and spent additional time attending transit specific police training upon graduation from their State certified basic academy training, the politicians determined that LAPD and LASD personnel were better qualified to provide policing services. Neither of those agencies` personnel was familiar with the transit system or had any transit specific law enforcement training, and perhaps most importantly, no particular interest or desire to work that type of assignment.

Once the move was made, both the LAPD and the LASD put their best foot forward and ensured they maintained high visibility due to the intense media coverage of the switch in policing agencies. However, as time went on, they had difficulty getting officers to work the assignment, and it became almost exclusively an overtime detail with no long term commitment. The transit system was not viewed as a coveted assignment and the turnover of personnel was frequent. Although never acknowledged publicly, it became known as a dumping ground for mediocre officers.

The MTA never should have given up their Police Department. They relinquished their ability to recruit, hire and train the type of employee they wanted working for them. They gave up the ability to deploy personnel as needed, provide additional training as new issues arise, develop policies reflecting their priorities and values, the ability to sanction or remove officers who engage in inappropriate conduct, and most importantly, the ability to control costs though labor negotiations. The current increase in crime on the transportation system and the correlating decrease in ridership is a predictable outcome, when facts are disregarded in favor of politics.

There are historical events that prove this inference. In September 1990, the Los Angeles Times carried a headline that read, "Riders applaud RTD`s beefed-up security." RTD had Miracle on Broadway (MOB) squad, a police force that patrolled the bustling Broadway retail strip. Its mission was to protect RTD passengers both on buses and waiting for buses. According to the Downtown News, "The six man force reduced crime along Broadway." The officers boarded buses at random, or at the request of drivers. 

According to MTA Police Chief Sharon Papa, Transit Police officers were garnering so much positive media attention that LAPD Command staff demanded that Papa discontinue the foot beats. When they were told NO, they attempted to get the City Attorney to rule that RTD Police did not have any authority to walk foot beats on LA City sidewalks. As RTD Board President at the time, I along with Papa during an intense meeting had to remind them that RTD Police were State certified peace officers and had jurisdiction anywhere there were properties owned, operated or utilized by the Transit Agency, and that included bus stops on City streets. The LAPD had to back off, but not before stating RTD was making LAPD “look bad." 

A year later in August 1991, a Police Station opened in Sunland as the headquarters of a 13-officer "Safe Community Alert Awareness Team "(SCAAT). It was very successful according to Chief Papa, " People are saying it`s nice to see transit police in the Valley."  Some Police officers rode the buses in plain clothes, but the high visibility of uniformed officers was to let people know who the Transit Police were. Uniformed RTD transit police officers foot- patrolled on Van Nuys Boulevard, between Oxnard Street and Sherman Way, near bus shelters, where large numbers of people congregate and where much of the crime occurs.

As I said at the time, the idea of deploying foot patrols came in response to complaints from merchants and bus riders about safety in the neighborhood. The most persistent problems faced by SCAAT had not been violent incidents but drinking in public and rude teen agers. I was asked by other San Fernando Valley City Council offices to extend the foot patrols in their districts because of the noticeable success. An RTD driver said the bus patrols show that the drivers are not the only authority on the bus. "Before they never thought we had any type of security. Now they kind of watch out." Chief Papa commented, "LAPD has their hands full. They don`t have the time to target crime at bus stops or on buses.”

Indeed, the success of the SCAATs resulted in establishing similar teams in East and South Los Angeles and Sun Valley. SCAAT teams proved to be more effective because they were more mobile and could saturate an area or bus lines for a few days, then move to another area. A clearly marked black and white police car drove the line simultaneously, so any arrestees could be immediately transported for booking. Passengers appreciated the uniform presence on board and along the bus routes. 

In December 1992, the RTD Board selected the RTD transit police to patrol the Red Line subway, passing up an LAPD bid that would have cost $4 million more. Marv Holen, RTD Board member, said the "Decision was of great significance, because it helps define the MTA (The Metropolitan Transportation Authority was established in February 1, 1993) for future operation. It establishes transit security."

The success of Chief Papa was attributed to her own style of community policing for the transit system and in deploying her resources in innovative an effective ways. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Papa explained that transit policing is based on a different philosophy. “Most local law-enforcement agencies are response -oriented. They don`t have a lot of prevention programs. Our officers are not catching people breaking the law; they need to prevent laws from being broken.” She continued, "Our most high-profile community-police effort is our foot- beat team Downtown. They are not there to handle the shop lifters. They are making sure panhandlers aren`t hassling passengers at the bus stops or that illegal vendors aren`t blocking buses from getting in and out of stops."

When questioned about graffiti prevention, Chief  Papa explained, “We have 20 officers assigned full time to what we call our Graffiti Habitual Offenders Suppression Team (GHOST). The taggers focused on RTD buses because they viewed them as rolling billboards. We were laughed at by the LAPD and the Sheriff`s Department. They asked, ‘you`ve got a task force working a misdemeanor crime?’ But not every crime impacting a community is based on major felonies and drive-by shootings. We were the pioneers in combatting taggers, so much so that we ended up training other law enforcement agencies. We were the only ones with a database.”

GHOST was established when vandalism exploded on the transit system. Although an isolated crime was a misdemeanor, the aggregate cost to the transit agency increased from $2 million cleanup cost to $10 million. Several transit police officers were former bus operators. One of those officers would drive the bus and a couple of passengers were undercover officers. When taggers "bombed" the bus, the officers took them into custody and used the same bus to take them to jail.

In a March 2023 editorial, the Los Angeles Times stated, "Disorder, rising crime and declining confidence in the system pose an existential crisis to Metro." According to an Office of Inspector General audit, Sheriff`s deputies were assigned to Metro to ride the trains only 12 out of 178 weekly shifts, providing little visibility on the system. When Sheriff Robert G. Luna was asked on March 23, 2023 at the Jonathan Club to explain the lack of safety on Metro buses and trains, he candidly replied "I'm short staffed."

In a March 22, 2023 letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, Chief Papa wrote, "The MTA Board of Directors made the unwise political decision to disband the dedicated MTA Transit Police Department in favor of a contractual relationship with LAPD and LASD. The lack of consistent dedicated personnel specifically hired, trained and deployed to work in such an environment has greatly contributed to the crime problems and quality of life issues. Bigger isn`t always better. The Chief Safety Officer of MTA was quoted in your reporting as being told, they (LAPD) were not going to have a bus company tell them how to deploy their resources. That statement clearly sums up the problem."

In a June 2023 Metro Board meeting, the Board voted to consider recreating its own Transit Police Department to take over the responsibilities currently under the LASD, LAPD and Long Beach Police Department within three years. 

“The current increase in crime on the transportation system and the correlating decrease in ridership is a predictable outcome, when facts are disregarded in favor of politics.”—Nick Patsaouras