BART Police officers stand near an entrance at Civic Center BART station. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Armed police or unarmed ambassadors? BART weighs conflicting visions for passenger safety

Agency’s proposed annual budget includes $2 million more for police, $500k more for fare inspectors

BART’s top leaders all want crime at stations and onboard trains to drop, and for riders to feel safe — but at the last BART Board of Directors meeting Thursday morning, they clashed on how to achieve that goal.

It’s a conflict that looks likely to play out in talks over the agency’s proposed 2020 budget.

Some members of the BART Board of Directors are pushing for a BART system staffed with unarmed ambassadors. These community members, possibly former convicts given a second chance to contribute to society, would be trained in de-escalation tactics to help defuse tough situations.

BART Board of Directors President Bevan Dufty and Board member Lateefah Simon initially proposed the program last year, modeling it on an already existing program used on Muni buses in San Francisco. The visible presence of the ambassadors is intended to boost the perception of safety on BART for the riding public.

And most importantly, they’d be unarmed.

“This is the issue riders feel most concerned about. That we’re not working to make the system safer,” Dufty said at Thursday’s meeting. “And the number one thing you can do to make the system safer is having people walking the system.”

However, BART General Manager Grace Crunican did not include the program in a staff budget presentation Thursday.

Instead, Crunican proposed spending $2 million more annually to hire additional police officers, and $500,000 more annually to hire more fare inspectors to roam the system.

The budget will go before the board in June, but Thursday’s discussion provided a sneak peek. It was also an opportunity for Crunican to explain why she felt BART needs more armed police.

“There is unanimous agreement that BART must act decisively and quickly to reduce erratic and sometimes violent behavior that is discouraging evening and weekend riders and threatening the safety of our front-line staff,” Crunican wrote in a memo to the board, portions of which she read aloud on Thursday. “The objective is to move illegal and rule violation activities off the trains and out of stations.”

That didn’t sit well with some on the board.

“To be clear, I thought the direction from the board was that we liked the ambassador program,” said Rebecca Saltzman, a BART board director. “I want to make sure it’s given more serious thought than it has so far.”

BART board director Janice Li, who represents San Francisco, also voiced concern that the staff presentation on safety didn’t reflect the board’s direction at a recent committee meeting. And at Thursday’s meeting, BART Board member Simon explained to Crunican why unarmed ambassadors may be the future of BART, over an armed police force.

One day while riding BART, Simon asked one passenger her feeling on armed BART police.

“She said, ‘We all just want to be safe, but we don’t want our rights to be violated,’” Simon said. “There is a need for a tone and culture shift in our system.”

Notably, people of color have long had an uneasy history with the BART Police Department.

Just last year BART police fatally shot Shaleem Tindle, of Oakland, at West Oakland BART station. And this past year was the tenth anniversary of the infamous BART police killing of Oscar Grant, who was shot while pinned to the floor by a police officer at Fruitvale Station.

Cephus Johnson, known to Grant as “Uncle Bobby,” told the San Francisco Examiner that dismissing the idea for unarmed ambassadors shows a lack of commitment to reforming BART in the wake of Grant’s death.

“What we have to think about, and what we’ve been preaching the last 10 years, is de-escalation training, crisis intervention,” he said.

Johnson, who became a social justice activist following Grant’s death, was particularly heartened by the idea to hire former convicts from the community to staff the unarmed ambassador program. “We have a community of young men who had struggles in their lives,” he said. “Now they can help protect innocent lives, and are being denied the opportunity to lend a helping hand.”

Though the idea for unarmed ambassadors faced pushback, the door hasn’t closed on the idea.

Crunican “and staff heard the comments from some Board members this morning and will no doubt continue the discussion before the budget comes up for a vote in June,” said BART spokesperson Jim Allison, in an email to the Examiner.

When asked if the idea was done after staff opposed it, director Simon said flatly “no.”

“We’re the board. We’re going to revisit it,” she said.

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