What started as a contentious pilot program to introduce alternatives to traditional armed law enforcement on BART has become an integral part of the regional railroad’s efforts to protect the wellbeing of all its riders.
The community ambassador program, which deploys uniformed, unarmed officers to respond to calls regarding mental health, homelessness and substance abuse, provide education and de-escalation to avoid conflicts before they occur and, now, ensure riders adhere to pandemic-related safety protocols, celebrated its one-year anniversary on Wednesday.
Over the last 12 months, the program operated by the BART Police Department has had extensive reach.
Ambassadors had more than 12,000 educational interactions. Out of those, a police officer has only been called 132 times, according to a BART statement.
They’ve also conversed with nearly 10,000 people on platforms and handed out more than 1,000 masks.
“Having additional uniformed personnel has been received very well by our riders and employees,” said Deputy Chief Angela Averiett, the woman tasked with leading the newly minted Progressive Policing and Community Engagement Bureau. “They are the face of BART out there interacting with the public.”
Inspired by a similar initiative on Muni for some bus routes to school, the pilot took years to get off the ground, led largely by efforts from BART Board members Bevan Dufty, Janice Li and Lateefah Simon. It started with 10 ambassadors and roughly $1 million in funding from BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
“Two years ago, there were a lot of questions about whether the BART ambassador experiment was worth it. Yet I believed strongly in establishing this program because I knew this was going to improve our rider experience and address safety concerns,” Li said. “We now have an answer to those questions: our BART ambassadors are a complete success, with support from both our top brass at BART PD and from our riders.”
With the 7-2 BART Board approval in October 2020, the Progressive Policing and Community Engagement Bureau has since been formalized with the mandate to hire 40 total dedicated officers, including community outreach specialists, crisis intervention specialists with a “social work background” and transit ambassadors with “community service experience.”
Moving forward, the agency estimates an annual cost of $2.8 million plus another $300,000 for training expenses, all of which has already been budgeted for in upcoming fiscal years.
Creation of this bureau is the latest step in BART’s long journey to repair its image as an agency plagued by crime and racially-biased enforcement. The 2009 killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a BART police officer at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station continues to haunt the agency; the case reemerged most recently when the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office decided last month to not press charges against another one of the involved officers.
A six-year investigation of the BART Police Department released in January by the Center for Policing Equity, an organization that helps police departments nationwide with addressing how to improve bias in enforcement, shows clear evidence of racial bias against Black BART passengers, one of the harmful realities the community ambassador program hopes to ameliorate.
From 2012 to 2017, over half of riders stopped by BART police were Black, despite only making up 8.7 percent of ridership. More stops were made in areas with higher poverty rates, and racial disparity increased when looking at stops within wealthier neighborhoods.
Of all recorded use-of-force incidents, 63 percent of individuals involved were Black, making them 13 times more likely than White riders to experience force from BART PD officers.
BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez, who said earlier this month that he wants to build “the most progressive police department in America,” committed to adopting the six recommendations put forth by CPE to help address the evident racial bias.
They include improving data collection efforts, updating fare enforcement policy, revising certain BART PD policies such as rules around when to draw a firearm and redoubling efforts to build mutual trust between community members and law enforcement.
Alvarez, who oversaw the creation of the Progressive Policing Bureau, has also been a vocal believer in the efficacy of the community ambassador program. To the board, he’s painted a picture where the future of BART policing could include more accountability, a focus on improving quality of life and an emphasis on connecting those experiencing homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse with services.
“We need to be treating all people fairly and equitably,” Alvarez said in a statement. “That is my expectation of everyone at BPD. We are here to protect and serve. We will continue to work on building bridges and engaging with the communities we serve.”