BART Ambassadors are being called on to assist riders in social situations that don’t require police force. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>

BART Ambassadors are being called on to assist riders in social situations that don’t require police force. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Unarmed BART ambassadors program formalized with a focus on community service

Public safety and police reform are key elements in campaigns of Board members Dufty and Simon

The BART Board took a step toward more progressive future for its public safety and policing programs Thursday, approving plans to make a 10-person community ambassador pilot program permanent and add 11 new crisis intervention personnel to its ranks.

Run out of the BART Police Department, the newly minted Progressive Policing and Community Engagement Bureau will respond to calls regarding behavioral or mental health, homelessness and substance use and provide education and de-escalation to prevent confrontations before they occur.

The motion passed with a 7-2 vote. Directors Debora Allen, who called the proposal a “bait and switch” as compared to what she believed the board originally approved, and Liz Ames, who wanted to wait until ongoing rounds of community outreach were complete, dissented.

But Board President Lateefah Simon, a social justice organizer who has long pushed for a transition away from armed officers to unarmed personnel, said this decision demonstrates the agency’s commitment to well-being for every rider and marks the “largest safety staff in BART history.”

“We need to make sure that people who are having the worst days of their lives, who have no destinations, have a way physically out of the tunnel that’s not just throwing somebody out, knowing that when the next train comes, they will just get back on,” Simon said.

She also emphasized the new bureau was crafted by BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez, who she called one of the most progresssive law enforcement leaders in the country. Simon said she trusts Alvarez to know what kind of support his armed officers need to effectively prevent violent crime on the rail network.

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 and haunted by the death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot by a BART police officer in 2009 at Oakland’s Fruitvale station.

It’s taken years to engender the support needed to test the ambassador program, which was first inspired by a similar initiative targeting bus routes to school at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Simon and colleagues such as Board members Bevan Dufty and Janice Li faced staunch opposition from other board members, law enforcement and even the public when the idea first came to be, requiring persistent negotiation and outreach to reach this point.

“I do trust our chief, and I trust our staff. With this proposal we add to the safety ecosystem in our system,” Simon said of the new program created in close partnership with the BART Police Department.

An election about policing and public safety

The debate over how to reconcile the agency’s murky past, achieve police reform and address concerns over incidents involving unhoused or mentally ill individuals on the trains has not only been an animating force for the current board under Simon’s progressive leadership; it remains a key storyline in the transit agency’s November elections, which come amid a broader national racial reckoning.

Five BART Board seats are up for re-election this year, two of them representing parts of San Francisco.

Simon currently holds the seat for the seventh district, which includes swaths of Alameda and Contra Costa counties plus the areas near San Francisco’s Embarcadero and Montgomery Street stations.

Her opponent is Sharon Kidd, a Berkeley resident, career financial analyst and former member of BART’s Police Citizen Review Board until 2017, when Simon opted not to reappoint her.

Kidd, who has been backed by the police union, says low staffing levels for law enforcement, a weak approach to fare evasion and inadequate services from the cities and counties BART serves are responsible for the “tragic issues with the homeless living on trains and the mentally ill who need treatment.”

She’s promised to increase the number of officers within the police department and harden stations to fare evasion, which she believes could solve the “vast majority of these problems.”

Board member Bevan Dufty, whose ninth district represents the stations reputed as some of the system’s busiest and seediest such as 24th Street, 16th Street, Powell Street and Civic Center, also faces re-election.

Dufty’s history of political service in San Francisco is long, having served as Director of Neighborhood Services under Mayor Willie Brown and then on the Board of Supervisors representing District 8. During his tenure on the BART Board, he has prioritized station cleanliness and maintenance, refused to seek endorsement from the police officers union and helped spearhead the ambassador program.

Calling the formalization of crisis specialists and ambassadors into BART’s police force a “turning point” for both the transit agency and San Francisco, Dufty said, “It’s so clear that police don’t have either the tools or training to respond to these societal issues, and I think local government has done a disservice by putting law enforcement as the primary response to homelessness and mental illness and addiction.”

Unlike Simon’s opponent, Dufty’s challengers’ stances largely come from even further to the left.

Michael Petrelis called on Dufty to explore if he received campaign contributions from law enforcement during any of his bids for public office, which led to him discovering he had indeed received about $1,500 unknowingly from police unions in the early 2000s. He pledged to give back an equal amount to racial justice organizations and to forego further contributions.

Patrick Mortiere, a young advocate with a penchant for policy, advocates for a hiring freeze on sworn officers, diverting money from the police budget toward prevention efforts, and a more creative approach to funding that more aggressively pursues grants to shore up dependable revenues.

Mortiere supports the ambassador program, asking for further expansion and investment.

“I think we’ve seen time and time again that BART PD is responsive to crimes — particularly violent crimes — only after they’ve occurred. But little is done in terms of prevention,” he said. “We don’t need armed and sworn officers to make a legitimate presence at stations and on trains in order to deter crime.”

Pilot results

Supporters of the ambassador program say that very premise — that safety and security can be improved on trains and stations without armed officers — is borne out in the pilot program’s data.

For six months, 10 unarmed uniformed officers were deployed in teams of two throughout the system to walk trains, making themselves available to answer rider questions, address complaints, inform riders of a transit rule violation or call upon an armed officer as needed.

Once coronavirus arrived, their duties shifted towards mitigation. They were sent out in fewer numbers due to limited ridership and posted up at stations rather than trains, where they focused especially on mask compliance and social distancing.

From February to August, ambassadors recorded 7,387 “educational contacts,” meaning they initiated a conversation to explain a transit rule violation such as eating, fare evasion or not wearing a mask, and 6,728 responses to rider requests for assistance.

Armed BART Police were called to intervene only 66 times.

On two notable occasions, ambassadors identified unresponsive or overdosed individuals and called medical personnel to revive them. In another, they assisted with the arrest of an individual believed to have committed a battery after being flagged down by the victim. The suspect was found to be carrying a firearm.

During the pilot, ambassadors were recruited from the BART Police Department’s Community Service Officers unit, which consists of unarmed, non-sworn personnel. Participants received a 10 percent special assignment pay bump.

Moving forward, the Progressive Policing and Community Engagement Bureau will consist of 22 dedicated officers — two community outreach specialists, each heading a team of five crisis intervention specialists and five transit ambassadors — all reporting to Deputy Police Chief Angela Averiett.

Transit ambassadors will be on the trains themselves continuing the work of the pilot program. They’ll be required to have “community service experience.”

Crisis intervention specialists are intended to link people without housing, those suffering from mental health conditions and other at-risk individuals to their proper agencies at the local and county levels. These officers will be required to have a social work background.

Funding the program doesn’t require additional expenses to the operating budget. Rather, it allocates already-approved funding to this specific purpose.

The 10 transit ambassadors will be converted to Police Officer Union positions, and their salaries will be paid by money already set aside for non-police-union vacancies.

As for the 10 crisis intervention specialists and the hiring of one additional community outreach specialist (one is already on staff), these positions are funded in the FY21 budget as part of the COVID-19 Containment Initiative, essentially a placeholder budget line item approved in June to support safety and health efforts related to pandemic response.

In total, staff estimates an annual cost of $2.8 million plus another $300,000 for yearly training expenses.

This pilot wasn’t a panacea.

BART police data shows crime dropped 58 percent in September 2020 compared to September 2020, but ridership has also dropped by nearly 87 percent, undermining that progress.

Board members agreed Thursday that partnership with the counties and cities the rail serves would be absolutely critical to supporting the ambassador program and ultimately securing long-term stability for the people experiencing homelessness, mental illness and addiction who have turned to BART trains as their shelter of last resort.

“There has to be a way for us to partner meaningfully to help people. BART is going to be visible. We’re going to engage with the mayor and city departments to get the collaboration we need,” Dufty said. “I think we can accomplish things that no other transit agency has done before.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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