BART finds funding to launch pilot ‘ambassador’ program offering an unarmed alternative to police

A similar program on Muni targeting school routes is credited with reducing fights, bullying

After months of contentious debate, BART has identified funding to pilot an unarmed ambassador program.

These community liaisons would roam BART trains and stations, acting as deterrents on crime and making themselves available to help patrons. They are intended to serve as an alternative to armed police, who have had contentious relationships with some BART riders.

In many ways, the debate over the program between BART Board members Bevan Dufty, Lateefah Simon and Janice Li, who support the ambassador program, and BART General Manager Grace Crunican, who voiced support for boosting police, has been a philosophical one.

Will BART solve its quality of life woes by the gun? Or through the use of unarmed members of the community?

If BART approves its proposed budget in the coming weeks, the answer could be both.

In a memorandum to the BART Board sent Tuesday, Crunican wrote that BART staff anticipates ending this fiscal year “with a slight positive net result.” Since agency staff has found a few more coins under the cushions, so to speak, Crunican proposed funding an ambassador pilot program with $500,000 in BART funding. That may be matched by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, she added, bringing funding to $1 million.

That isn’t a done deal — the BART board still needs to vote on its budget on June 13. But the funding allocation is giving some BART directors reason to celebrate.

At a community meeting in San Francisco’s Main Library Tuesday night, Dufty and Li touted the program’s potential benefits.

“I’ve been doing a lot of shadowing with programs of ambassadors that exist,” said Li, to the crowd of roughly 30 people in the library’s Latino/Hispanic community room. Muni bus ambassadors have been particularly successful.

“School bullying issues have significantly declined” since the Muni Transit Assistance Program started, she said.

That program has 16 staffers in yellow safety vests who patrol Muni buses near schools where fights were known to break out. They are unarmed, but trained in conflict resolution techniques and often hired from the community itself.

It’s those very qualities most of the meeting attendees preferred — no guns, more talking, more community.

“Giving people tickets or arresting them doesn’t solve their poverty or their mental illness,” said Winston Parsons, a meeting attendee. “If our main concern is homelessness, bathrooms, drug use, I like there being an ambassador to connect them to those services.”

Brad Chapin, a vice president of events and fundraising at the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and a meeting attendee, told Dufty and Li “we oppose new police forces. As someone who’s seen someone get shot and murdered on a BART train, the officers were completely useless.”

He added, “we need psychologists and social workers around our BART stations.”

Another benefit of the ambassadors may be simple numbers, said Chiamaka Ogwuegbu, another meeting attendee. Because the ambassadors are paid less than police, “if one of the core tents of the safety of the system is just presence, you can go much farther with these ambassadors.”

Frances Hsieh, another meeting attendee, cited concerns that existing ambassador programs “don’t have enough training to prepare ambassadors for safety situations.” Other attendees were concerned the ambassadors may not be paid highly enough, and would not be union members — threatening the jobs of existing union workers at BART.

Speaking to some of those concerns, Dufty said the plans are at their earliest stage.

“In truth there is no design for this program” yet, he said, because funding to develop it had only just been approved. However, as the plan is developed, he said “I want to make a commitment that these individuals be BART employees.”

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