Will Defunding Police Hamper Post-COVID Recovery of Transit Systems?

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Whatever the merits of calls for defunding police, there’s one area of law enforcement at risk of serious damage from budget cuts—particularly as the nation faces up to the economic and social costs of recovering from COVID-19.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, mass transit systems across the country have been coping with simultaneous crises: a sharp reduction in passengers and an increase in assaults on transit workers by riders angered by requirements to wear face coverings.

Nearly 80 percent of U.S. mass transit systems require employees and riders to wear face coverings, according to a recent survey provided to listeners at a Listening Session on July 31, 2020 by the Federal Transit Administration. But an almost equal number of respondents to the poll acknowledged they have no way to assure compliance.

That has created a dangerous gap.

In San Francisco, a MUNI bus operator was attacked by three patrons when he ordered them off his bus for not wearing masks.

Underground, New York subway assaults were up 30 percent year-over-year from June 28 to July 17 even though four million fewer people rode.

Fewer passengers on trains and buses have magnified assaults and unruly behavior. In March, a rider broke into a New York conductor’s locked cab and attempted to sexually assault her. In May, one conductor was stabbed by a woman who broke into his cab and another was punched after asking a man not to ride between the cars.

Homeless riders, who travel extensively, pay no fares, panhandle, and stretch across multiple seats, are exacerbating anxiety among the few passengers still using public transit.

Increasing crime and public demands for stricter mask enforcement have not prevented transit systems from becoming a target of efforts to decrease police budgets. Some cities, including Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, and Portland, OR, have reduced transit policing. In these cities, agencies rely on local police departments for fare enforcement, homeless outreach, response to/investigation of serious crimes, and patrol of buses, trains, and stations.

Most plan to replace police with service-oriented personnel. Others will expand the duties of so-called “ambassadors,” who provide directions and assist with ticket purchases but who do not respond to calls for police service.

But this combination of social service workers and low-paid, minimally trained ambassadors is unlikely to prevent assaults on operators or to convince riders that they may safely return to transit patronage.

In Denver, a mental health worker currently works with the Regional Transportation District (RTD) security staff. Despite increasing complaints about disorder in its historic downtown Union Station, the RTD isn’t adding security personnel. Instead, it’s hiring a homelessness service coordinator in an effort to make counselors available beyond daytime hours.

In Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will hire ambassadors to minimize police response to nonviolent crimes and will shift policing funds to homeless outreach. The MTA is considering sending social workers or mental health professionals to homelessness and substance abuse complaints, and separating these calls from the 9-1-1 dispatching system.

Threatened Female Riders

The plans to curtail transit policing also run counter to a recent study in which two-thirds of female riders asked for more police. Three years ago, in response to declining ridership and increasing violent crime, the board ratified a $645.7 million, five-year, multi-law enforcement agency contract to police its bus and rail system.

Serious crime is not new on Metro Transit buses in Minneapolis, where the death of George Floyd on May 25 spurred the nationwide surge in calls for defunding the police. In November 2019, an elderly bus rider was followed and killed after asking three patrons to make less noise. This year, in January and February, theft, robbery and aggravated assaults increased an average of 20 percent over the same period last year.

An increase of over 100 percent in non-violent crimes, including vandalism over the previous year has not affected plans by the city’s transit system to use ambassadors. They would collect fares, connect homeless or mentally ill patrons with services, and tamp down smoking and drinking aboard vehicles, although these plans languished.

In the wake of defunding demands after Floyd’s death, even though local police are likely to be withdrawn from the transit system, some employees are demanding still fewer police despite rising crime. In New York City, nearly 1,000 police officers, who assisted with transferring homeless riders out of trains to facilitate overnight cleaning and disinfecting have been withdrawn.

In addition, the NYPD’s 85-member homeless outreach unit was disbanded as part of the $1 million in police budget cuts. Although New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency is adding to its own police force, these officers are not normally assigned to city buses and subways.

In Portland, OR, the city council reduced the police budget by about $15 million, including eliminating patrols of Tri-Met, the regional transportation agency. Since Portland is one of 14 law enforcement agencies that Tri-Met contracts with, the others may be asked to add officers.

But currently, even without the loss, about 25 percent of Tri-Met’s 76 police positions are vacant.

Some agencies are bucking the trend. The Orange County (California) Transportation Authority overrode demands that it hire additional mental health workers and decriminalize fare evasion. Instead it increased funding for officers who police its facilities.

And in south Florida, where the coronavirus is surging, Broward County sheriff’s deputies, at the request of the transit agency, are checking that riders obey mask mandates. Miami-Dade Transit is also being patrolled by officers specifically to enforce mask violations. Officers were cautioned to avoid incidents similar to the one that went viral when Philadelphia police dragged a man off a bus for not wearing facial covering.

dorothy schulz

Dorothy Schulz

Transit agencies are in the awkward position of needing more enforcement at a time when politicians are acquiescing to protesters’ demands to defund police.

This contradiction can be expected to intensify as the COVID-19 crisis subsides and passengers return to public transit.

Dorothy Moses Schulz, Ph.D., is an emerita professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and a retired MTA-Metro North Railroad Police captain who has served as a safety and security consultant to transit agencies across the country.

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