The COVID-19 pandemic has created a heightened sense of awareness for transit’s safety and security measures.
The effects from the pandemic leave agencies like Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), TriMet, and the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (SDMTS) improving security and creating new initiatives to better serve their respective communities.
Providing Courtesy and Respect
Metro recognizes the need for improving the community through new security and safety programs.
In May, Metro partnered with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) to pilot the provision of comprehensive crisis response services to individuals experiencing mental health crises while onboard Metro vehicles or at Metro stations.
“The COVID-19 pandemic really exacerbated societal problems around the region, and we are feeling that intensity in Los Angeles County,” says Desarae Jones, sr. director of special projects at Metro. “We can’t control what’s going on in the world, but we can impact the experience for the customer onboard the transit system.”
Courtesy of LACDMH, the partnership staffs Metro-dedicated psychiatric mobile response teams. The teams consist of at least one licensed mental health clinician and one other mental health professional or paraprofessional. Co-response teams consist of one clinician and one law enforcement officer trained in mental health crisis response, while community ambassador network teams consist of outreach and engagement staff.
“The teams are essentially a mental health provider and a peer advocate who work together when they meet a person on the system to assess what that person needs,” Jones says. “This helps to provide direct support to these riders, and it’s an alternative to having law enforcement respond.”
Instead of law enforcement being involved in these scenarios, Metro plans to have specially-trained individuals respond in the case of a crisis moving forward.
“We are hopeful that we will replicate this success in reducing the number of mental health instances that require a law enforcement response and improve the outcome of individuals,” Jones says.
The partnership between LACDMH and Metro will be ongoing for three years with the option to renew on an annual basis. After the three years, both parties will conduct an initial needs assessment study to determine service, coverage, and capacity needs prior to assigning response and outreach teams for this pilot.
“We're really excited about this partnership,” Jones says. “We think our customers are really going to appreciate having the added resources.”
This program isn’t the only security initiative Metro has implemented in 2022. In April, the agency launched “Respect the Ride,” a program “working to improve safety and the customer experience on the Metro system.”
According to Metro’s official announcement, the agency will deploy its staff to assist riders in identifying the problem and resolving it to improve the overall customer experience.
“Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins’ number one priority is to make a safe system for our riders and for our employees,” says Gina Osborn, chief safety officer. “We have our system security and law enforcement, our customer experience. We rely on our operations partners to make sure the custodians, train operators, and bus operators are on the same page.”
Upon launch, Metro outlined specific goals the agency is looking to reach during the course of this program:
- Help riders navigate the Metro system, pay fares, and get discounted fares.
- Have staff on hand to help riders use the Transit app — Metro’s official app — to plan transit trips and get real-time arrival estimates for buses and trains.
- Adding more custodians to keep stations as clean as possible, especially the high-touch areas.
- To remind everyone of good transit etiquette and that there is a Code of Conduct designed to make riding a pleasant experience for all
- Work closely with security staff and law enforcement partners — the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and the Long Beach Police Department — to ensure the bus and rail system is well patrolled and is there to help when riders need it.
- Use homeless outreach staff to connect unhoused riders with social services and housing.
“We have our transit security officers that are making sure that everyone who comes onto our system knows we're there for the purpose of transportation,” Osborn says. “We also have additional custodians at those stations where we have ‘Respect the Ride’ to make it clean. We're working with our TAP card customer service agents, so they're going to be there right now before we bring our transit ambassadors on board to assist our customers.”
Metro’s new pilot programs are already seeing results in the community. According to Jones, the agency has seen a 60% reduction in the number of people who were actually seeking shelter at one station. Metro has also handed out thousands of hygiene bags and permanently housed more than 200 individuals.
The “Respect the Ride” program has helped more than 150 people who are sheltering at the station entrances to find interim housing, while connecting hundreds more to water, social, and medical services.
“So a problem as complex as public safety requires agencies to pursue a comprehensive strategy and employ new approaches to improve it. So what does that mean? Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration,” Osborn says. “Safety isn't just security, it's everyone's responsibility.”
Jones offers more advice for agencies looking to improve their own safety and security measures, stating that they should look outside of the transit industry.
“Talk to your colleagues across the country, across your state, and not only in the transit industry, but actually talk to homeless service and mental health providers. Hear directly from the experts how to engage with the special populations,” Jones says.
As the programs are new, Metro recognizes there’s no final resolution to improving security.
“We're learning as we go. And, we have to be able to pivot to provide a more effective safety program at any given time,” Jones says. “We're not just choosing one framework and then putting it in place. We're building and morphing it as we go.”
'Reimagining' Public Safety
TriMet has taken a number of steps to improve safety and security within the organization.
The Safety Response Team began service in March. The team is unarmed and aims to connect people in the system to community-based resources. The team also discourages “inappropriate behavior,” according to TriMet.
TriMet began hiring for the team in September 2021. As of March 2022, the team consists of 24 members who work in smaller groups.
Responsibilities for the Safety Response Team include:
- Attempt to connect riders in-need to social services.
- Create a welcoming, inclusive, and safe environment for everyone, including TriMet staff.
- Reduce the number of 911 calls for non-emergencies.
- Provide emergency supplies to those who need them.
The agency’s Safety Response Team is part of TriMet’s “Reimagining Public Safety on Transit,” which was first identified in November 2020.
The program is currently working with “local community-based organizations to increase community-informed training on anti-racism, cultural competency, mental health, and de-escalation techniques,” according to TriMet’s official website.
The Transit Public Safety Advisory Committee, based on outreach by TriMet that generated more than 13,000 responses, provided recommendations to further reimagine safety and security:
- Expand training for TriMet employees in anti-racism, cultural competency, mental health, and de-escalation.
- Increase the presence of TriMet personnel to support riders on the transit system.
- Work with community and jurisdictional partners to develop a crisis intervention team model to address issues on the system that do not warrant a response by law enforcement.
Building Transit Partnerships
MTS has taken its own approach to security since the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency began onboarding security officers from Inter-Con at the start of 2022. According to the agency’s official website, “the new security team began patrolling Trolleys, buses, and transit centers.”
The contract with Inter-Con dates back to July 2021 when the MTS Board of Directors approved a new five-year, $66 million contract with Inter-Con Security to provide security services on MTS vehicles and properties.
“Inter-Con was selected because they have a high retention employee rate amongst transitioning personnel, a strong management team and back-office support, a thoughtful and well-designed recruiting and training process, and a very strong transition plan,” says Al Stiehler, MTS director of transit security and passenger safety. “Inter-Con has 48 years in the business, working for both federal and state government entities in highly visible posts. They have a robust training program regarding use of force and de-escalation, enabling them to better deal with the many issues facing public safety teams in a mass transit environment.”
Responsibilities for the security officers include:
- Conducting fare inspections, acting as system ambassadors.
- Supporting bus and rail operations and other employees in need.
- Helping with lost and found.
- Responding to the agency’s Ride Assured 24/7 text and phone hotlines.
The MTS service area covers 570 square miles, 62 stations, and 53 miles of double-tracked railway.
“So far, the transition has exceeded our expectations,” Stiehler says. “We receive tremendous support from Inter-Con executive leadership and they are extremely responsive to all our needs. While we don’t have any verified data points yet, we have received comments from the public and our fellow San Diego MTS employees regarding the outstanding professionalism and courtesy of our new partners.”