Villanueva gives Metro ultimatum on transit policing

Calling the current shared system of policing Los Angeles County's transit system a failure, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Wednesday he will pull all his deputies from transit patrol duties on July 1 unless his department is awarded a contract to provide all policing on buses, trains and stations.

Pointing to what he called a rise in criminal activity on Metro transit lines and at stations, along with a growing issue of homeless people loitering or even living on trains, Villanueva said, "the status quo is unacceptable. We're not going to continue with it."

Under a contract originally approved in 2017, policing duties on the Metro system are shared by the sheriff's department and the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments.

Villanueva said his agency's agreement with Metro expires July 1, and the department notified Metro on Wednesday it plans to bid for the full policing-services contract. The contract will also call for deputies to have full enforcement authority, including Code of Conduct violations such as trespassing, urinating, playing loud music and fare-evading -- issues that the sheriff said have been shifted to Metro security guards or ambassadors in an effort to reduce law-enforcement presence on the system.

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"We are going to bid on the entire contract," he told reporters. "We're not going to bid for parts of it. We're not going to bid for the role of being overpaid security."

The sheriff said that due to a hiring freeze on his department, the agency is approaching 1,000 vacancies, and he is more than willing to pull the 300 deputies currently assigned to the transit system and shift them to other duties to help fill the void.

"We have all of the personnel that are dedicated to the system -- I have three jobs waiting for every single deputy," he said. "... I have the ability and the need to actually redeploy the personnel where they're actually going to be sworn peace officers working as cops, actually saving lives, preventing crime from occurring and solving crimes that occur. This is all about public safety."

He claimed the sheriff's department contract proposal will be $30 million cheaper than Metro's current policing contracts. But he said full enforcement authority on the transit system will be required, and the issue "is not negotiable."

"It's going to be a contract where we're going to enforce the code of conduct, fare evasion and the rule of law," he said. "That's what we're going to do."

Metro officials could not be reached for immediate comment.

Meanwhile, Metro Board Chair and LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis took exception to Villanueva's decision to issue Metro an ultimatum. Solis accused the LA County Sheriff of politicizing the Brooklyn subway mass shooting.

Below is a full statement issued by Solis:

"The politicizing of yesterday’s Brooklyn subway shooting by the Sheriff is beyond the pale when we should be ensuring the safety of our riders and employees. The action by Metro to award a contract to three law enforcement agencies, the Long Beach Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, was taken to improve law enforcement response. The Sheriff’s declaration of pulling out his deputies if the department isn’t awarded the full contract with Metro should alarm everyone. His sound bite of being defunded would not only be inaccurate, but he would essentially be defunding his own department if not awarded a sole contract."

Metro's Board of Directors in December increased its law-enforcement contract budgets, but also continued efforts to move toward a more community-based approach to public safety, relying on ambassadors and security guards to respond to basic conduct violations, rather than armed law-enforcement. The effort began in the aftermath of George Floyd's death, which set off a national re-evaluation of policing.

Metro's vision includes efforts such as transit ambassadors, elevator attendants and a flexible dispatch system to enable a response by homeless outreach workers, mental health specialists and unarmed security personnel. Transit ambassadors would be trained in de-escalation and customer service to support transit workers and riders.

Villanueva pointed to various recent high-profile crimes on the Metro system, including people being pushed in front of oncoming trains by homeless people, shootings of passengers aboard trains, a recent knife attack at the Willowbrook station and a recent case of a homeless person who died on a train but wasn't discovered for six hours. He said Tuesday's shooting aboard a New York subway train highlighted the need for comprehensive security systems on transit lines.

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City News Service contributed to this report.