The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is changing the way it polices buses and trains, adopting a multi-agency contract that will expand responsibilities beyond the county sheriff's department to include the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments.
The Metro board approved the five-year, $645.7 million contract Thursday after months of debate. The contract, which takes effect in July, will end more than a decade of Metro policing conducted exclusively by the sheriff's department.
Los Angeles and Long Beach officers will police transit stops and vehicles within their jurisdictions and the sheriff's department will continue to police the rest of the system.
The board decision comes as Metro struggles to keep existing ridership and gain new riders. Metro ridership declined 6 percent last year despite new rail section openings that attracted tens of thousands of new riders. In November, county voters approved a 40-year, $120 billion spending plan that will dramatically expand transit options.
Under new policing contract, there will be an increase in the number of hours officers spend policing transit, rising from a maximum of 200 per day to more than 300 hours. Officers dedicated to the bus system will be added for the first time.
Metro's staff estimates the contract will reduce most emergency response times from 16 minutes to 6 minutes.
Metro reports that crime throughout its system has dropped about 15 percent this year and 80 percent of Metro bus and train riders said in a 2015 survey that they feel safe using transit. But other Metro surveys of those who have stopped riding transit cite safety issues as a top concern.
An audit of Metro security published by the Inspector General in 2015 showed that while crime rates were not high on the system, serious crime rates were higher than in many other big cities. The audit also found Metro's resources were not allocated proportionately to lines with higher crime rates, such as the Green and Blue light rail lines.
At Thursday's meeting, Metro CEO Phil Washington announced what he called a security "surge" on the Blue Line as part of a broader campaign to make the line safer.
Activists from the Labor Community Strategy Center, the parent organization for the Bus Riders Union, criticized the adoption of the new policing contract. The parent organization filed a complaint against Metro with the U.S. Department of Transportation last year, charging the transit agency violated the civil rights of black riders by unfairly targeting them for fare evasion tickets and arrests.
The complaint cites statistics that show black riders make up 19 percent of Metro's ridership but receive about half of all citations for fare evasion. The U.S. Department of Transportation is still investigating the complaint.
After the vote adopted the contract, protesters at the board meeting shouted: "A thousand more buses, a thousand less police."
Metro is transferring duties for fare enforcement from law enforcement agencies to civilian security personnel and calling for law enforcement officers only in case of needed backup. In recent years Metro has made fare evasion tickets an administrative rather than a criminal offense similar to a parking ticket in accordance with new state laws aimed at decriminalizing the offense. A similar program to decriminalize fare evasion for minors is being currently studied for adoption by the agency.