In late February, a rare model Ferrari crashed into a utility pole while traveling at high speeds in Malibu, Calif. A man at the scene of the accident claimed he was a passenger and that the driver had fled after the accident. He then provided information stating that he was a deputy police commissioner for the San Gabriel Valley Transit Authority (SGVTA), a small, privately owned paratransit provider in suburban Los Angeles.
Minutes later, while authorities at the scene attempted to make sense of the event, two unidentified men showed up flashing badges and claiming to be “homeland security” personnel. The two said they were also employed by the SGVTA, setting off an investigation that eventually revealed a potentially dangerous loophole in California law regarding public transit police forces.
Upon further investigation, the SGVTA, which operates only five buses owned by Yosef Maiwandi, was found to have its own police force with an antiterrorism unit. In fact, the agency’s Website, before the address changed, described the SGVTA police department as a large law enforcement body with a chief, detectives and police cruisers. Despite these claims, other law enforcement agencies in the area, as well as some of the small municipalities that contract with the SGVTA for transportation, claimed that they were unaware of the small paratransit agency’s police force.
Furthermore, authorities discovered that the Ferrari passenger claiming to be a deputy commissioner has a felony record and is wanted for other crimes overseas. According to news reports, his position with the SGVTA was based solely on an agreement made with Maiwandi that he would help provide surveillance equipment for the agency.
This peculiar set of circumstances has prompted many questions for authorities. For example, what qualifications must be met for an operator to create a transit agency with its own police force? And was the SGVTA receiving or attempting to receive federal funding or tax dollars in some way?
In the state of California, transit agencies are required by law to meet a set of public safety regulations. To assist in their compliance with state law, agencies are permitted to create and maintain their own police forces. The SGVTA “legally formed a public safety department that has been properly recognized by all law enforcement credentialing agencies, although not yet certified by California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training,” said Maiwandi.
According to a forthcoming study by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) titled Guidebook for Startup Transit Agencies, there are also “various federal regulations, policies and procedures with which public transit agencies must comply, such as Federal Transit Administration circulars, federal registers, grant contracts and certifications and assurances.”
But Ann Joslin, principal investigator on the study, said that these regulations must only be met if the agency is receiving federal funding. Otherwise, any private company can call itself a transit provider and start its own police or security force.
The SGVTA has not received federal funding and has a clean history in terms of providing not-for-profit transportation services to people with disabilities and the elderly. “We are just trying to help people,” said Maiwandi, adding that the SGVTA runs on donations and does not rely on tax revenue or any other government funding.
According to Joslin, the most important qualifications the agency would have to meet would be state and federal laws regarding drivers (depending on the vehicle) and ADA requirements for transporting people with disabilities.
An investigation is ongoing, and it remains unclear whether the SGVTA actually broke any rules.