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After streak of violence, LA Metro announces 'immediate surge' in officers on buses and trains

Metro responds to troubling streak of violence with "surge" in officers
Metro responds to troubling streak of violence with "surge" in officers 02:18

Following a streak of violence aboard LA Metro buses and trains, Mayor Karen Bass announced Thursday an "immediate surge" in the number of law enforcement personnel patrolling the transit system, particularly fully uniformed officers riding buses and trains.

From several attacks on drivers to the deadly stabbing of a passenger, a spate of violent crimes over the past few months have alarmed local public officials and the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority as they grapple with finding solutions. Bass, who's also chair of Metro's board, said she directed the "immediate" deployment of more law enforcement officers on Wednesday — the first in a series of steps being taken to address a crime spike she called "absolutely unacceptable." 

Over time, the number of public safety officers will be increased by 20%.

Despite the recent violence, Metro has reported an overall decline of 41% in crimes against people over the past year. There has been an 18.7% reduction in the number of crimes against people between February and March, going down from 166 to 135, according to the transit system's public safety report. 

Still, local officials and Metro board members have acknowledged the recent crimes are troubling and out of the ordinary. Several public officials have said mental health issues, homelessness and substance abuse have contributed to the broader problem with violence, making for a situation board member and LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger described as "fighting an uphill battle."

On Thursday, Bass spoke alongside seven other LA Metro board members and officials in announcing their united support for a motion she will be proposing before the transit system's board at its May 22 meeting. The motion will expand cell phone service in underground stations and aboard moving buses and trains as well as establish a unified command between Metro security officials and law enforcement agencies. But, perhaps most notably, it will increase the number of uniformed officers actually riding and patrolling buses. Bass said she directed Metro to do that last thing immediately, before the motion even goes to a vote next week.

"Given what has happened on the trains and the buses, we did not want to wait for a meeting next week," Bass said. "We wanted to act immediately."

A rider at the Metro Red Line-North Hollywood station said she saw a difference Thursday.

"I honestly did see the difference from last week that I was riding to yesterday," she said. "I was shocked to see so many police officers at every stop."

Metro's Board of Directors will also vote on a budget that would increase public safety spending by 11%, doubling the number of transit security officers. More uniformed law enforcement officers will be boarding buses and trains to create a "visible presence" in deterring crime and responding quickly, a point emphasized by several board members Thursday.

Janice Hahn, vice chair of the board, said Metro currently contracts with LAPD, the LA County Sheriff's Department and Long Beach Police Department. She said the agencies are "essential" in making riders and drivers feel safe but the current contracts "have not gotten us a readily visible law enforcement presence on our system."

"We need law enforcement riding our buses and our trains," Hahn said. "It does not do our riders any good if officers remain in their squad cars. The violence against our riders in recent days and weeks demands an urgent response."

Since the beginning of this year, there has been at least a dozen incidents of riders or drivers being stabbed, punched, or even killed aboard buses and trains or at LA Metro stations. In February, a passenger died after being pepper-sprayed by another rider during an argument on a bus in Koreatown. In April, a 67-year-old woman taking the train home from work was stabbed in the throat and killed as she traveled through the Studio City area.

"While sitting on the train, she was stabbed without provocation by a man who grabbed the bag she was holding," LA County District Attorney George Gascón said as he announced charges against the accused killer.

Meanwhile, drivers have been the target of multiple violent attacks. In February, there were 12 assaults on operators and 10 reported in March, according to Metro's public safety report.

In one instance, a man punched a driver in the face and stabbed him in the chest as the bus drove through the Willowbrook neighborhood of South LA. Just three weeks earlier, another Metro driver was threatened with a gun that later turned out to be fake and held hostage, causing the bus to crash into several cars and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown LA. That incident spurred a response from SMART, a union representing Metro drivers, demanding immediate action by the public transit system.

"Our members are on the ground getting guns in their faces and putting their lives on the line," the union's president, Jeremy Ferguson, said in a statement. "The time to 'plan' has long passed... Employers must act now to protect their workers."  

Earlier this month, Metro drivers staged a so-called "sick out," calling in sick to protest conditions they have faced. The transit system said at the time that it understands drivers' "fear in the face of senseless assaults." It has approved new plexiglass barriers on 2,000 buses, and on Thursday, board members said they plan to do more. Hilda Solis, board member and LA County Supervisor, said Metro will install barriers on every bus by the end of the year.

Stephanie Wiggins, the transit system's CEO, said having uniformed officers seen patrolling buses and trains seems like the best immediate solution. "Uniformed presence is the key," she said. 

Los Angeles, with its traffic and freeways, has never had the sort of long established public transit system as cities like New York and elsewhere in the world. With LA set to host the 2028 Summer Olympics, Wiggins said she plans on making Metro and the city itself more than ready for the world stage.

"As for 2028, it is clear that failure is not an option," Wiggins said.  "There is no fear that these issues will be here in 2028." 

"We know this is an incredible opportunity today to improve the experience today," she said. "So that in 2028, when we're hosting the world, transportation will be the least thing they have to worry about."

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