BART’s latest plan to tackle crime: Post officers at troubled stations

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OAKLAND — The BART Police department wants to further ramp up its presence on trains and in stations by assigning beat officers to specific high-crime stops, as the transit system works to reassure riders who have fled amid worries about their safety.

BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez said his department’s efforts to hire more officers and launch regular train patrols have been paying off, pointing to an 18-percent drop in crime in January compared to the first month of 2018.

Still, crime in the BART system rose for a sixth straight year in 2019, with violent crimes up 4 percent and all crimes up 11 percent compared to 2018.

And another violent attack in the system Tuesday, in which a man beat another passenger with a chain in an apparently unprovoked assault aboard a rush-hour train in Oakland, grabbed headlines and rattled nerves for riders nervous about crime. That attack remains under investigation, with no suspect in custody.

“We need to listen to our riders and own their concern,” Alvarez told BART’s board during a presentation at its annual retreat Thursday, where members debated how to stem declining ridership and how a public transit agency primarily tasked with taking passengers around the Bay Area ought to handle a regional homelessness crisis that often plays out on its trains and platforms.

“Our riders are telling us that they are frustrated and don’t feel safe in our system,” Alvarez added.

Transit ridership has been down across the country and throughout the Bay Area. But BART officials have been particularly concerned about data showing steep declines in night and weekend ridership, when many passengers complain that they feel unsafe once rush-hour crowds die down, or infrequent service makes taking transit less attractive. That’s a big problem for BART because the agency relies on passengers’ fare revenue for roughly half of its operating budget.

BART’s board has at times been conflicted about how to confront rising crime, with some directors wary of a heavy-handed response to problems such as homelessness that they worry could amount to criminalizing poverty. On top of the historically fraught relationships between communities of color and law enforcement generally, the agency’s police have faced criticism for the large racial disparities in the department’s arrests and citations, and have spent more than a decade seeking to regain community trust following the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant by a BART officer.

“All communities want safety, and they want law enforcement,” BART Board President Lateefah Simon said Thursday. “They don’t want law enforcement that is not fair.”

Despite those reservations, BART’s directors have so far signed off on many of the police department’s new initiatives and its efforts to hire more officers.

Alvarez said he planned to request funding in BART’s budget for another 19 police officers, in addition to the 19-officer increase the board approved last year.

So far this year, BART police have assigned 22 employees to new positions patrolling trains and stations on nights and weekends. A dozen traditional police officers were assigned to train teams in January, while 10 unarmed ambassadors from among the department’s community service officers began a six-month pilot program patrolling trains on Monday.

The department’s latest initiative is a push to assign a handful officers to patrol single stations, rather than having them bounce between several stops as they are typically assigned to do. By keeping those officers in one place, Alvarez said, they can build relationships with station agents and regular riders, while being close by in an emergency.

Director Liz Ames welcomed the idea, saying it recalls “the days of having a beat cop.”

Which stations will have an assigned officer isn’t clear yet. Following a trial run in which an officer was stationed at the Balboa Park station following a rash of cellphone thefts, Alvarez said he would work with the department’s newly hired crime analyst to determine five stations in the system with the biggest need for a fixed officer.

“We’re putting more officers on the trains, we’re putting ambassadors on the trains, we have a plan in place to continue to make BART safe,” Alvarez said in an interview, adding that the department is working to “get that angst out of people that makes them think that BART is not safe.”

He acknowledged, though, “We have to prove it to them.”

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