BART exploring unarmed civilian ‘ambassadors’ to patrol trains

As BART police ask the agency to hire more armed police officers, two board members are taking a different route by exploring an unarmed “ambassador” program.

The BART Police Department at Thursday’s Board of Directors meeting will ask the agency to hire 54 more police officers to patrol the system.

The request is the result of a five-year strategic staffing plan developed in conjunction with the University of North Texas, as BART is besieged by calls for safety from advocacy groups of every stripe, and its everyday riders.

At the same time, BART directors Lateefah Simon and Bevan Dufty also plan to ask BART staff to explore hiring unarmed “ambassadors” to patrol the system, the directors told the San Francisco Examiner.

“We’re not asking for the department to get rid of police, but what we realize is that community safety isn’t just performed by armed professionals,” Simon said. “There’s another conversation that can be had about, ‘What does public safety look like?’”

The debate on how BART should improve safety on and near its trains has been spurred by high-profile deaths at BART stations, both old and new. But as more BART officials call for more armed police officers, many in the community have publicly questioned the wisdom of that approach, noting the recent BART police killing of Oakland resident Shaleem Tindle and the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant.

The conflict resolution model proposed by Simon and Dufty is based on the Muni Transit Assistance Program, in which 16 staffers in yellow safety vests patrol Muni buses near San Francisco schools where fights are known to sometimes break out. Those Muni staffers are unarmed, trained in conflict resolution techniques and, importantly for Simon and Dufty, they are hired from the community.

Monday afternoon, a bevy of BART officials met with the Muni conflict resolution staff, including Simon, Dufty, BART Deputy General Manager Robert Powers and Tim Chan, who heads the agency’s station planning.

The officials started their afternoon journey at a corner across the street from Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School in the Bayview neighborhood, and as the shouts of joyous and rambunctious kids just leaving school could be heard across the street, the BART officials peppered Muni staff with questions.

Dufty, who previously ran homeless services in San Francisco, asked about encounters with people suffering from mental illness. Simon asked about resolving fights aboard Muni. Powers asked about staffing levels and hours. The questions ranged from general to detailed, but all conveyed one thing — this proposal has potential.

Daisy Avalos, acting manager of the Muni Transit Assistance Program, or MTAP, was their guide. Her answer to many of the BART officials questions about handling bad behavior on transit was simple: Respect and de-escalation are key. Instead of approaching the homeless, mentally ill or rowdy passengers from a position of authority. they approach by offering assistance first.

Its “empathy,” she said, “not as an authority figure.” But it’s key to also have “street smarts,” which comes from their community roots.

Avalos is a San Francisco native (an alum of Woodrow Wilson High School) and one of the original MTAP hires, who joined Muni in 1997 when the program was first proposed by Willie Brown, she said, the namesake of the school across the street. In her time de-escalating she has only ever seen “two or three” assaults on her fellow employees by passengers, although they’ve helped calm numerous confrontations.

Avalos explained some MTAP hires are people who’ve been on a rough path themselves, which helps passengers relate to them.

“When kids see O.G.’s, (former) gangbangers, who turned their life around, they look up to them,” Avalos said.

That also helps uplift the community they come from, she added. Importantly, those MTAP staffers are expected to only work three years then utilize their training by transitioning to other city jobs, Avalos said.

Amid the discussions, the group boarded the 44-O’Shaugnessy line heading south.

Aboard the bus, Avalos told the Examiner she believes the program would be a strong addition to BART’s toolkit to tackle safety. “It’s people from the community working in the community,” she said.

As the group hopped off the bus at Third Street and Palou Avenue, a pre-teen aboard the 44 poked his head out of the window and nodded up in “hello” to Avalos — a sign of respect.

“I love it!” Dufty exclaimed, excitedly, after seeing the positive interactions between the MTAP ambassadors and the riding public.

But just because they get along doesn’t mean MTAP and the public don’t see some conflict. Powers, the BART deputy general manager, asked if the MTAP staffers kept incident data. The easy answer? Avalos, and another MTAP staffer, Tony Borrego, pulled notepads out of their pockets with checklists for incidents. That “ride check report” featured checklists and comment sections for bus and train cleanliness, stops ridden, incidents, actions taken to resolve incidents, level of graffiti, and more.

Borrego, a San Francisco native who attended Riordan High School, said he encounters the homeless and those apparently suffering from mental illness from time to time when he patrols Muni. Just recently on the 9-San Bruno. he encountered a woman who barraged him with endless questions. She was seemingly lost, and very, very confused, he said. Borrego sagely answered each one of her questions, never losing his cool. She wrote a glowing review of him to his bosses that same day.

“I just try to treat them all with respect, then they treat you with the same,” Borrego said.

But though their actions may be kind, perhaps the MTAP staffers are also greeted kindly because of something very key they’re not empowered to do: As Borrego and his fellow MTAP staffers walked a Muni train stop along Third Street, riders joked with them more readily once they explained they had no ticket-writing authority.

They’re just there to help, they explained.

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