Los Angeles County Metro officials voted Thursday to begin negotiating contract extensions with law enforcement agencies that patrol its trains and buses—and to look into creating an in-house police department following reports that officers it pays to patrol the system might not be following through on that duty.
Metro’s Board of Directors voted 11-1 Thursday afternoon to allow its CEO to start negotiating potential three-year extensions with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Long Beach Police Department, agencies it’s paid over $900 million since bringing them on board in 2017.
Increases in crime and public drug use on the system, as well as a report from the agency’s inspector general in December that found that the officers Metro has been paying for may not be holding up their end of the contract, also led the directors to ask for a feasibility report on creating its own police force.
That report could be presented to the board as early as May.
“You put law enforcement where they’re needed, and it doesn’t seem like our current contract is getting law enforcement where they’re needed and where they’re visible,” said Director Janice Hahn, who represents Long Beach on the LA County Board of Supervisors.
Hahn said she was supportive of giving the agencies another chance but said the “proof would be in the pudding” and she wanted to see ridership numbers go up and not see “story after story” published about crime on Metro’s system.
A recent Los Angeles Times article detailed the drug use that happens on the system, which some directors specifically cited during Thursday’s meeting. Annual reports from Metro showed that crimes of all categories increased by at least 10% between January 2022 and January 2023, with “crimes against society,” which includes narcotics and trespassing, showing the biggest increase at 38%.
Other directors were less restrained with their criticisms of the police agencies Metro is paying to provide security on its system. Director James Butts said in a meeting earlier this month that the issues have not been figured out by the law enforcement agencies because “there’s been no reason to.”
The contract has been an “economic bonanza” for the departments, Butts said, as the agencies have been able to hire officers without paying out of their own budgets, with little to no accountability. He called for the new contract to include some form of geolocation of the officers so Metro could track where they’re deployed in real time.
“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Butts said Thursday about the agency’s current method of tracking, which requires Metro surveillance footage to be matched to individual officers’ logs to ensure they were present. “Police agencies today geolocate their resources. Why can’t we if we’re paying this kind of money?”
The frustration over the current level of service and the opacity of what the agency has been paying for led to all directors voting in favor of looking at the feasibility of creating its own force.
Directors said that having its own police officers, which eight of the 10 largest transit agencies in the country already have, could better align enforcement with Metro’s values of improving the overall transit experience and allow the agency to have control over where they’re deployed.
LBPD officers patrol the smallest portion of the network compared to the LAPD and LASD, which patrols the largest share. The original contract approved in 2017 paid the LBPD $27 million over a five-year period, a sum that was expect to pay for 30 new officers to patrol the then Blue Line and the eight stations within the city.
The inspector general’s report said that the LBPD typically deploys its officers in two shifts of six, with four officers assigned to ride trains and one officer and a sergeant assigned to patrol vehicles. The LASD primarily deployed its deputies in vehicles, according to the report.
However, the report noted that the LBPD was not able to provide information about the number of train boardings officers made or how much time they spent on trains or at stations to provide visibility, which Metro directors said they think is imperative to increasing safety and ridership on the system. The data has always been self-reported, the probe said.
All three agencies self-reported that they spent between 81% (LAPD) and 98% (LBPD) of their time doing proactive patrols on the trains during the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years, the period of time the report studied.
A total of five use-of-force incidents were reported by the department during that time, according to the report.
A deadly use of force incident in 2017—just months after the contract was approved with Metro—could cost Long Beach $12.2 million after a judge ordered the sum be paid to the family of a man who died after struggling with officers who stopped him for fare evasion, which led to him being hit and pinned by an oncoming train.
The LBPD did not respond to questions about its Metro contract before publication, including what officers paid for by Metro are expected to do during their shifts, how much time they’re required to spend on the system versus responding to other calls, if the LBPD currently uses geolocation to track its officers and if it would be willing to turn that data over to Metro in the future.
Transit activists denounced both the board’s move to extend the current contracts with law enforcement agencies and the exploration of creating its own department. They called for that funding to go toward unarmed presences like the recently deployed Metro ambassadors as well as things like janitors and people trained to deal with substance abuse and mental health disorders.
“You talk about not envisioning a system that has no police, that’s what a lot of transit riders are experiencing already,” said Alison Vu, communications manager for the Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles.