The past year’s surge of violence on BART has the transit board struggling to reconcile the need to increase policing with a population that’s mistrustful and even hostile towards law enforcement.
BART reported three homicides in July, including the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at MacArthur Station. In response, BART officials proposed beefing up security by upgrading surveillance, hiring more police and preventing fare evasion.
BART received a $6.8 million safety and security grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in August, which will be used to upgrade cameras and radios as well as add more police officer deployments on BART trains and stations.
But BART’s security proposals clashed with calls for police transparency and accountability as critics remembered the officer-involved shootings of 22-year-old Oscar Grant in January 2009 and 28-year-old Sahleem Tindle earlier this year.
The Coalition on Homelessness, East Bay for Everyone and the social equity group TransForm are concerned about BART’s reliance on police to solve safety issues.
“The police shouldn’t be the first answer to every problem,” said TransForm spokesperson Edie Irons. “There’s a real lack of trust in BART police in particular.”
BART Police Officers Association President Keith Garcia acknowledged that officers struggle to repair broken community relations when someone is constantly looking over their shoulders.
“We have good police officers trying to do the best job they can. Sometimes when they’ve done nothing wrong they are still subjected to all kinds of scrutiny in the media,” Garcia said. “You’re always second-guessing yourself in a job that requires split-second decisions.”
After the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009 by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, BART created an oversight system with an auditor and citizen review board in 2010.
An independent review of BART’s oversight system in 2017 by OIR Group, a police accountability organization, made several suggestions to improve BART Police Department’s strained relationship with the community.
“There are challenges that are unique to a transit agency,” said OIR Group Principal Michael Gennaco. “It’s a little harder to engage with the community in the way that a city agency does.”
BART rider and activist Sasha Perigo said that although having more BART personnel does generally make people feel safer, not everyone is comfortable around armed police officers due to the fear of being shot or arrested based on their skin color or identity.
“Different populations feel safe around the police,” Perigo said. “I understand we all want a well-funded safe BART system, but I want to make sure the programs we are implementing make everyone feel safe and are cost-effective.”
According to the California Department of Justice, the three homicides recorded in July are an anomaly compared to the total of six homicides in the last decade.
According to BART, violent crime fell due to an increase in felony arrests and aggravated assaults were up compared to the same time last year. Property crimes and robberies also decreased, but the April 2017 robbery of an entire train car at MacArthur Station by a mob of juveniles and subsequent refusal of BART to release the images of the suspects resulted in a lawsuit by the victims and negative publicity by the media.
Despite calls for safer trains, the BART Board of Directors directed its support of expanded enforcement specifically to fare evaders during a board meeting last month. And since last January, BART community service officers have been able to cite fare evading adults $75 and minors $55.
The board’s priorities miss the mark, Perigo said.
“They are not addressing the needs of the public,” she said. “At no point do we criminalize people for parking tickets. To do that for fare evasion on transit feels like we are targeting poor people.”
For Coalition on Homelessness Human Rights Organizer Kelley Cutler, BART’s emphasis on fare enforcement is the wrong approach.
“It’s criminalizing homelessness and creating more barriers,” Cutler said. “This crisis didn’t happen overnight. The thing is there’s a lot of folks who are just seeking refuge. They have nowhere else to go.”
Cutler said most of the homeless on BART are at-risk individuals who want a warm place to stay where they won’t be hassled. According to San Francisco 311’s shelter reservation website, the waitlist for beds can range in the thousands daily.
“People assumed the resources are there. The reality is we don’t have the resources,” Cutler said.
BART police officers are often forced to act as social workers, directing the homeless and those with mental illness or drug addiction to inefficient services when the public complains about them.
“It’s not a role they (police officers) should be playing, but that’s the role they are tasked with. It’s a real drain on them,” Cutler said.
According to Garcia, the BART Police Department used to be one of the top paid law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area. Now, he said, it’s critically understaffed. Fewer than 121 officers patrol more than 430,000 weekly riders across 46 stations in four counties, when there should be closer to 200 officers.
“We have a hard time attracting new people,” Garcia said.
The Public Policy Institute of California found that hiring one additional police officer leads to 1.3 fewer violent crimes and 4.2 fewer property crimes per year. The same report states that California police officer staffing has declined by 6 percent between 2008 and 2017.