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As they look to win back riders lost during the pandemic, bus and subway operators are looking beyond traditional law enforcement to address their concerns.
Monique Lowe has been driving a bus in the Seattle area for 17 years, but she has become increasingly concerned about the prevalence of violence, drug use and behavioral health issues exhibited by passengers since the onset of the pandemic.
She was particularly alarmed by shootings on buses and at bus stops. “The bus is my office, right?” she told Route Fifty. “If any office building was shot at, they’re going to shut down the building and evacuate it. But because this is happening at a bus stop, they don’t get the same consideration.”
But Lowe, who has been recognized for her customer service, also worried that simply having police handle some of the troubling situations bus drivers encounter wouldn’t get passengers the help they needed.
So during a union meeting with a local state legislator, Lowe suggested starting a program to have behavioral health specialists—not just police officers—ride buses or be stationed nearby to help customers in need. Lowe’s suggestions became the basis of a new, state-funded pilot program that will be rolled out on King County Metro buses.
“I was just trying to think of ways to reach people who may not have been reached before. People who have been in and out of systems have intimidation issues with uniforms,” she said. “We wanted to create something that was friendly and more inviting.”
Transit systems around the country face similar challenges, as the economic upheaval from Covid-19 has increased demand for behavioral health services while also hampering the ability of government and nonprofits to deliver them. Several transit agencies—including those serving Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.—are now exploring ways to connect riders with services without relying on police.
“If we have people who are able to get on the bus as a ‘co-pilot,’ they would be able to engage the individuals with resources rapidly, or at least be able to de-escalate the situation,” said Washington state Rep. Jamila Taylor, who worked to fund a pilot program after talking with Lowe. “I’m of the belief that the public safety continuum requires community. We can’t just rely on law enforcement to solve all of our problems.”
Pandemic Worsens Problems
The number of people taking buses and local rail systems plummeted in the early days of the pandemic, and many riders are still staying away. Transit ridership in the last quarter of 2021 was just two thirds of where it was in the last quarter of 2019, according to data from the American Public Transportation Association.
The drop in riders also jeopardized transit agencies’ finances. Congress provided them with temporary relief with billions of dollars of subsidies. But the agencies are now hoping they can bring back riders before those funds run out.
Increasingly, though, returning riders are disturbed by what they’ve experienced. Violent crimes on many transit systems have increased, and an April shooting at a Brooklyn subway stop brought rider safety issues to the fore.
Riders are also upset about other issues—from erratic behavior and drug use on buses and trains, to a growing homeless population turning to transit for shelter.
Drivers are frustrated, too, as their safety and health is put at risk.
When a passenger smokes “blues,” or pills containing fentanyl, the fumes can impair a driver and make it impossible to do their job, Taylor explained. When that happens, they have to stop the bus and wait for another one to come and transfer passengers. The bus driver might have to take a drug test before they’re allowed to drive again.
Meanwhile, more people are riding transit because they don’t have a home. In the Seattle area, there are fewer places available at congregate shelters than there were before the pandemic, said Tiarra Dearbone, who helps people with behavioral health problems get treatment and services rather than be arrested.
Shelters initially limited their capacity to avoid spreading Covid-19, but now they are often struggling to find enough staff to provide services, said Dearbone, the director of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in Seattle and King County.
Local jails are also holding fewer people, Dearbone added. They started releasing people charged with low-level crimes when Covid-19 first appeared. Since then, the Washington state Supreme Court struck down the state’s main law criminalizing drug possession, meaning fewer people are being arrested on drug charges, Dearbone said.
People without homes often ride buses or trains to stay warm and dry. But their presence on board often makes other riders feel less safe, particularly women who are working evening shifts, said Taylor, the state lawmaker. Homeless people can also pose problems for drivers at the end of the route if they have nowhere else to go.
Taylor said those are challenges that behavioral health experts can handle better than police officers. They can also help because bus routes often go through multiple cities, meaning different laws apply along the way. Plus, stopping a bus to arrest someone and get statements from other passengers would be very disruptive, she said.
Her legislation sets aside $500,000 to fund a pilot program to determine whether King County Metro can use “de-escalators” on a rapid bus line that goes through her district south of Seattle. The money would also be used to research similar efforts in transit agencies around the country.
“This is not for every single route. This is for key routes at key times that would benefit from a ‘co-pilot,’ who is not as expensive as a full operator and definitely not as expensive as having a law enforcement officer literally sitting on the bus,” Taylor said.
Agencies Try New Responses
Taylor’s pilot program comes on top of another King County Metro initiative, started last summer, which involves “transit security officers.” The officers are different from police. This program is part of an effort to create a “new vision” for security at the agency that would eliminate “disproportionately negative outcomes” for customers and employees, particularly for Black, Indigenous and other people of color, Metro spokesman Al Sanders said in an email.
“By riding coaches on assigned routes and patrolling transit centers, transit security officers provide a security presence with a focus on providing customer service and assistance to riders, as well as deterring and addressing unlawful conduct,” Sanders wrote.
Bay Area Rapid Transit, which operates subway trains in the San Francisco area, is deploying teams of people that include a police officer, transit ambassador and crisis intervention specialist, said BART spokesman Chris Filippi.
“A lot of folks are just coming back to BART now for the first time in two years, and as part of that, they’re seeing this increased presence in the system from BART PD in a number of ways. It’s a way to make them feel more comfortable as they come back to our trains,” Filippi said in an interview.
The transit ambassadors, which BART began using in 2020, are unarmed but provide services similar to police officers and respond to customer needs. The crisis intervention specialists, who were first dispatched in November, focus on helping riders who need drug treatment, behavioral health services or shelter. Both kinds of specialists walk through the system and, like BART police officers, carry Narcan to help people who have overdosed, if necessary.
“[The approach] basically boosts our presence in the system, and it does it in a way where it’s welcoming for everybody—not everybody responds the same way to traditional law enforcement,” Filippi said. “And it gives us an opportunity to have more eyes and ears in the system.”
Using the specialists also means that police officers have more time to focus on the work they are trained for, he added.
The special engagement teams include police officers in part to protect the other specialists in case things escalate, Filippi said. Normally, though, the officers stay in the background if one of the other specialists is working with a passenger, he added.
In Washington, D.C., the local transit agency’s police force has been reaching out to area residents to make for a smoother experience on board.
Michael Anzallo, the police chief for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said the agency has seen a 67% increase in the number of involuntary committals for people with mental health crises since the pandemic began. WMATA wants to start pairing clinicians with police officers to get those kinds of passengers into treatment, Anzallo said, but the agency is still deciding whether to add them as employees or contractors.
Those specialists would be in addition to WMATA’s homelessness outreach team of police officers currently on staff. Those officers host events like food and clothing giveaways in places where there are large concentrations of homeless people and try to put them in touch with social service providers.
But adding clinicians will assist people on the transit system in other ways and can be helpful in cases where no crime is being committed, Anzallo said. “We obviously want to get that person some help,” Anzallo said, “so they can go on and live their lives.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.