A fatal stabbing has revived an ongoing debate at BART — should agency officials flood the system with police, or respond to public nuisance and safety issues with unarmed ambassadors?
The latest event to stoke transit riders’ fears has grabbed Bay Area headlines for days: On Tuesday afternoon a 49-year-old was stabbed to death on a BART train.
Jermaine Brim, 39, was charged with murder Thursday in connection with the incident at South Hayward Station.
In the immediate aftermath, BART General Manager Bob Powers upped the police presence on the transit system.
Thursday, he told the San Francisco Examiner he had authorized additional overtime to place more police and customer service staff at stations at night and on weekends when riders feel most vulnerable.
But Powers also said that in the long-term he’d need to explore a “compromise” between two competing sets of BART riders with wholly different philosophies and fears.
Powers told the Examiner, “We have to navigate those waters, I would say.”
Some BART patrons see the fatal stabbing as a call to put police on every train. These riders — and some BART staff — argue that only an armed presence can provide a feeling of safety and security.
BART station agent Jacob Lilja, who works at 12th Street BART station, called for more police at Thursday’s BART board meeting during public comment.
“We need armed officers throughout the system, we need officers who can get their information to check warrants and be there for violent situations,” he told the BART board. “I’m not advocating for targeting our vulnerable populations, but we need those same vulnerable populations to be protected from those who’d prey upon them.”
But others who ride BART — particularly black and brown people — remember the 2009 death of Oscar Grant at the hands of a BART police officer as one of many reasons to believe that police are as dangerous to them as other riders.
Indeed, people did not even have to go that far back to find evidence for this view. Earlier this month a confrontation between a black man eating a sandwich at Pleasant Hill BART Station and a BART police officer who detained him for violating a no-eating policy generated international publicity and widespread condemnation.
Darrell Owens, an East Bay housing advocate, was among those speaking against an increase in armed officers Thursday.
“I understand a lot of people are concerned about crimes on BART,” Owens said. But, “I don’t want to see police used for quality of life concerns, this to me is not right. Police should be doing things like stopping the stabbing, that’s great. But we’ve seen all you have to do is put visible BART personnel in the elevator” to curb bad behavior, he said, citing a program that put unarmed elevator attendants in some BART stations.
Owens directly asked the BART board to staff unarmed ambassadors, adding “we don’t want to see another Oscar Grant, we don’t want to see another riot.” Adding more police “doesn’t make riders, and particularly riders of color, feel safe.”
Powers has heard these perspectives in his weekly public listening tour, where he sits in stations to hear BART riders express how they’d like to see the transportation agency do better.
“I would say that when I’m out in the system I hear both sides,” Powers said, “folks wanting additional police presence, and people wanting an additional presence in the system but not necessarily police.”
The split is “probably fifty-fifty,” he added.
That split is also visible among the elected BART Board of Directors. Previously, BART board director Janice Li advocated for an unarmed ambassador pilot program that would see staff without weapons trained in de-escalation tactics roaming the system to weed out bad behavior.
In June, BART ultimately found funding for a pilot run of that program for $1 million, though it has not yet committed that funding through a vote. BART also expanded its police force in that same budget.
Even John Burris, a civil rights attorney who has sued BART for the actions of its police officers, including representing Grant’s family, said the choice between boosting police ranks and finding a more unorthodox approach is a difficult decision for BART to make.
“I’m always leery about anything that will put more African Americans in the criminal justice system,” he said. “However, I must admit safety is a primary concern for people on a public transit system.”
Powers, BART’s general manager, agreed on that point at least — navigating those opposing viewpoints may be difficult for the agency but will be critical to its ridership.
“Perhaps” though, he said, “there’s a compromise there.”
Correction: An early version of this story said BART had committed funding for an ambassador program. Though the BART General Manager had announced funding that could be committed to it, the BART Board of Directors has yet to approve it.