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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Off the Rails: Alternatives to Policing on Transit


The recent #BlackLivesMatter movement has focused media and political attention on the long-standing issue of state-sanctioned violence and racism in Black and Brown communities in the U.S. The same officers involved in use of force cases at a home, business, or during a traffic stop could be patrolling on transit the next day. Los Angeles Metro, the largest transit agency in LA County, reformed its policing contract in 2017 and now splits security responsibilities amongst four agencies, and approved the latest five-year, four-agency policing contract for $797 million in 2017 (Nelson, 2017). Given the high price of policing for Black and Brown transit riders, and Metro, my research investigates whether armed law enforcement personnel best provide safety and security services for transit, on behalf of the ACT-LAís Transit Justice Coalition. Drawing on case studies informed by prior literature, and my own interviews and research, I evaluate the promise of alternatives to armed law enforcement for ensuring passenger safety on Metroís system. I review alternative safety programs like transit ambassadors, elevator attendants, social workers, performance art, and fare-free transit. These programs, unfortunately, are the exception and not the rule. There is a true need to expand the definition of public safety and which bodies can provide those services to the public. While mimes and clowns usually do not come up in discussions of ways to improve transit safety, the evidence reviewed suggest that they, along with social workers, transit ambassadors, and elevator attendants, can be cost effective tools. While more evaluations are warranted, the data gathered here supports the merit of alternatives to policing on transit. I would argue that the challenge is more a matter of budgeting and leadership, rather than creativity and inspiration.

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