BART board to vote on unarmed ambassador proposal

Program intended to provide more staffing ‘presence,’ boost safety on trains during evening hours

Needles on seats. Litter on train platforms. Aggression aboard the trains themselves. Even that one commuter who always bumps their fellow riders with an oversized backpack.

All of those ills and more, so-called “quality of life” concerns, may soon be addressed by a new force at BART: unarmed ambassadors.

The BART Board of Directors will vote Thursday on $1.5 million in funding for quality of life efforts, which includes roughly $690,000 toward a pilot unarmed ambassador program.

Pending approval, ten unarmed staffers could be roaming BART trains as soon as February 10.

“We have heard the concern that we need more (staffing) presence on the train themselves. This is a start,” said BART Board member Bevan Dufty, who has long-championed the unarmed ambassador program.

The quality of life proposal would fund ten unarmed ambassadors trained in crisis intervention techniques to staff BART trains daily, primarily between 2 p.m. and midnight when the need has shown to be greatest. The additional $810,000 up for approval Thursday would fund new fare areas at BART’s Coliseum station, in Oakland.

Originally, the proposal called for the ambassador program to be staffed by nonprofits like Urban Alchemy, which include formerly incarcerated people who work as elevator attendants at downtown San Francisco BART stations now. That proposal didn’t fly with some on the BART Board of Directors, and with the BART Police Officers’ Association.

Now, the program will be staffed from within the BART Police Department itself, though they will be unsworn, civilian staff. That’s fine by the BART police union, said its president, Keith Garcia.

“Frankly, that was the big stumbling point. This could’ve happened a lot sooner had that not been insisted upon,” he told the San Francisco Examiner. With staffers now under BART police, they’ll be vetted through background checks.

More broadly, having any additional BART staff patrolling trains “makes the place safer,” Garcia said. When asked if he was concerned they won’t be able to handle a violent situation, Garcia said “I’m not worried about them particularly, they’re not going to be expected to intervene in a physical fight.” Instead, “they’ll be extra eyes and ears for us.”

The six-month program will deploy the ten ambassadors in teams of two on the lookout for “inappropriate behavior,” safety and security issues in the BART system and “biohazards,” according to a presentation slated for Thursdays’ BART Board of Directors meeting. Ambassadors will wear a “distinctive” uniform with the BART logo and the word “ambassador” across the back of their shirts.

And since the program is a pilot, it will face an evaluation looking at the number of incidents the ambassadors report, the number of incidents they address, any improvement in customer satisfaction, and customer surveys which will gauge reaction to the program. If BART riders enjoy the presence of ambassadors, or not, BART management will listen.

In fact, it’s “listening” that may have led to a swing toward approving the program. BART General Manager Bob Powers, as part of his recent “listening tour,” heard support for an unarmed ambassador program, according to a BART board presentation.

Still, it’s been a long road to approval.

BART Board President Lateefah Simon and Dufty began exploring the program in mid-2018 when they toured a similar, successful program on San Francisco buses called the Muni Transit Assistance Program.

The hope was to provide an alternative to armed police, which is particularly important for BART, which has faced criticism of its police department in the decade that followed the fatal police shooting of Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station.

More recently, a high-profile stabbing aboard BART stoked crime fears in many riders, and a video in which a black man was detained by BART police for eating a sandwich aboard a station platform stoked other riders’ fear of police themselves.

Revelations that BART police predominantly ticket black and brown men for eating food on BART and for fare evasion have also generated controversy.

Besides adding fuel to the debate over unarmed ambassadors, those incidents and others also prompted BART to beef up its police presence. The total headcount of the BART Police Department is 249, with 198 sworn officers and 19 recruits still waiting in the wings in academy training. BART hired 63 police officers in 2019.

Deputy General Manager Michael Jones emphasized that the ambassador program “isn’t an enforcement activity,” but instead to increase “presence,” which he said “could lead to less need for contact” with police.

Civil rights attorney John Burris, who represents multiple clients suing BART, including the man detained for eating a sandwich, said unarmed BART staff would be especially welcome if it led to more peaceful, positive resolutions of minor conflict.

“I think it’s worth a try,” he said. “It certainly can be positive in terms of lessening the tensions that exist, particularly between police and African American males and women.”

Should the program be approved, and should it be successful, BART Board member Janice Li, who has also championed the program, said she would work to identify funding to expand the program beyond ten ambassadors and supplement those teams with social workers and homeless outreach staff.

BART police only have one person in that role, Armando Sandoval, who is also a liaison with San Francisco’s homeless outreach teams. “BART (police) officers always tell us, ‘I wish we had another Armando.’”

Li is listening to officers, but also to riders, she said.

“I heard from so many everyday riders that safety can’t wait,” she said. “Our riders are asking for more staff presence on trains and on platforms, especially on weeknights and weekends.”

Thursday, riders will find out if that will happen.

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