Public Transit Providers Taking New Approaches to Rider Safety

  • Author: Edward Graham
  • Date: February 2, 2022
A bus moves along an urban street.
A Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's bus in action.

Recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach to policing does not adequately serve the needs of all riders, transit providers across the U.S. are introducing new safety personnel into their systems to intervene in and de-escalate situations before an armed police presence is needed. 

Whether it’s responding to individuals experiencing homelessness, people undergoing mental health crises, or passengers dealing with drug overdoses, transit police often lack the social services-related training needed to adequately support and assist these riders. And overly punitive responses to minor offenses on transit services can create more harm than good by intensifying police encounters and diverting officers away from the work of preventing serious crimes. 

 Also readLA Metro Partners with Strive Well-Being for Innovative Transit Ambassador Program as Strategy to Improve Customer Experiences, Increase Ridership and Reinforce Public Safety

To more effectively support the needs of all riders and promote a greater sense of safety and security on public transit, providers in major cities across the country have begun hiring unarmed civilian personnel—often with backgrounds in social work—to handle these non-criminal issues. Known as transit ambassadors, rider ambassadors, and crisis intervention specialists, these uniformed personnel are helping to foster a more welcoming atmosphere for all transit users. 

Reimagining policing on public transit

To address concerns about rising crime rates, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)—the public transit system that serves California’s San Francisco Bay region—first launched a pilot program in early 2020 that introduced unarmed community liaisons, called transit ambassadors, into its trains and stations. The goal of the program was twofold: increase the visibility of uniformed personnel who have been trained to deal with people in crisis, while also freeing up transit police to combat crime across the system.

The transit ambassadors, who work in pairs and have received training in de-escalation and anti-bias techniques, have police radios if a situation escalates beyond their control. But their main goal is to present a safe and welcoming presence on the system, offering free face masks, helping give directions and assistance to riders, and working to connect people in crisis with additional resources. These ambassadors have now become a permanent fixture across the BART system. 

In the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and amidst protests over police killings and systemic racism, local residents pushed for the BART Police (BART PD) to re-evaluate their approach to policing the transit system. BART PD took this as a call to action and, in August 2020, launched a new Progressive Policing and Community Engagement Bureau.

BART Deputy Chief Angela Averiett, who heads the Bureau of Progressive Policing and Community Engagement, said their mission is to take an innovative approach to public safety that better serves all of the system’s riders.

“We want to focus on engaging with our community, while also looking at how our policies, procedures, and operations can be more progressive and answer the needs of the community,” Averiett said. 

To foster a better community-oriented approach, BART PD rolled the transit ambassadors into the bureau and also created a new crisis intervention and community outreach unit to complement the work of their patrol officers. Unlike transit ambassadors, crisis intervention specialists in this unit have backgrounds in social work and focus on connecting individuals experiencing homelessness, drug issues, or mental health emergencies with needed services. 

“We haven’t always done a great job addressing homelessness or mental health crises, but we do have officers dedicated to this type of work,” Averiett said. “So we found officers who have that passion, got them additional training, and paired them up with our crisis intervention specialists.”

These “special engagement teams,” which include one officer and two crisis intervention specialists, are deployed throughout every line on the system to meet the needs of riders. While this is still a relatively new initiative—it was rolled out last November—Averiett said the results have been extremely positive. Transit ambassadors can now summon the team and provide a warm handoff to the crisis intervention specialists if they encounter someone looking to get into a shelter or who is experiencing a mental health crisis. There are currently 12 crisis intervention specialists deployed across the system, and Averiett said the goal is to have a full complement of 20 specialists in the bureau by March. 

“I think having the ambassadors and crisis intervention specialists has really paid off since our launch,” Averiett said. “Having people in crisis see a friendly face can encourage them to access some of these services. Even if we can only help one person, I really believe that has a huge impact.”

Given BART’s innovative approach to policing, it’s not surprising that other providers have reached out to learn more about these efforts. Averiett said other transit systems interested in this type of community-focused initiative should carefully map out the parameters of their programs and work to integrate these types of unarmed liaisons into their police departments. 

“Once they start hiring social workers or crisis intervention specialists, it’s super important that they get exposed to the law enforcement culture,” Averiett said. “Social workers are used to working in a different environment, and that environment doesn’t often include law enforcement. And this type of work also comes with a cost. Our personnel encounter people who are often experiencing the worst crises of their life, so I want to really stress the importance of employee wellness and not losing sight of that as well.” 

Crafting new approaches to rider safety

One of the public transit providers that looked at BART’s approach to policing as a partial model for their own system is the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA), which serves the city of Cleveland and the surrounding suburbs. 

GCRTA police chief Deirdre Jones, who took over the helm of the system’s police department last year, was interested in taking a 21st century approach to policing—one that looks for better ways to connect with and serve the community on a law enforcement level. 

Following a Cleveland Municipal Court ruling in 2017 that GCRTA’s use of transit police to conduct fare checks was unconstitutional, the transit authority began looking at new ways to approach fare enforcement. 

In a presentation to GCRTA trustees last year, Jones outlined a six-month pilot program that would use civilian transit ambassadors to conduct fare checks and would also include the use of community outreach and crisis intervention specialists trained in social work to assist riders experiencing homelessness, mental health crises, or substance abuse issues. Jones said the program, slated to go into effect later this year, would also include closer partnerships with the Cuyahoga County Diversion Center and other local social services groups to better assist riders in crisis. 

“The goal of the program is to lessen our footprint on the system,” Jones said. “We believe this could reduce fare evasions, increase revenue, and create positive interactions with riders. And a highly visible, uniformed transit ambassador provides a reassuring presence that our system is safe—not just for our riders, but for our operators as well.”

Similar to BART’s approach, Jones sees the transit ambassadors and community outreach/crisis intervention specialists serving complimentary roles on the system. Ambassadors will have police radios but will be focused on creating an hospitable customer service atmosphere for riders, providing riders with navigation assistance, and helping to deter any kind of fare evasion. Crisis intervention specialists will serve as liaisons between the transit police and community-based organizations in the region to help connect at-risk riders with access to mental health, crisis intervention, substance abuse, and supportive housing services. 

For the pilot program, Jones said the goal is to initially have two crisis intervention specialists—one on the east side and one on the west side of the system—paired with a transit police officer to respond to calls for assistance. 

While GCRTA is still in the development stage of the pilot program—Jones said the goal on paper is to have it up and running by this fall—they have established job descriptions for the transit ambassadors and crisis intervention specialists, and are currently formulating a program to train the new personnel on interacting with riders and de-escalating situations. 

“I would suggest that any provider looking to create an ambassador program reach out to agencies across the country that are doing this to get some ideas on how to get this going,” Jones said. “And not just off the ground and running, but in a way that makes sure it becomes a permanent fixture of their agency.” 

Providing compassion to riders in crisis

In Oregon, the Portland Streetcar is in the midst of launching its own rider ambassador pilot program to better serve users of the streetcar system. The new initiative, inspired in part by the 2020 protests following the killing of George Floyd, will include four ambassadors trained by social services groups and government partners. 

Andrew Plambeck, Portland Streetcar’s public affairs manager, said the ambassadors will receive training in racial equity, crisis intervention and mental health intervention, and using Narcan to treat drug overdoses in emergency situations. 

“We have security officers that ride the system and respond to problems, and we have customer service representatives who ride the system to provide customer service and give directions,” Plambeck said. “But we realized through discussions with our operators, operations supervisors, and security team that we needed someone in the middle to help riders who are struggling with addiction or managing mental health issues or experiencing homelessness get the help they need.”

The rider ambassadors—working in pairs across the system—will wear recognizable uniforms and branded backpacks containing granola bars, bottled water, and other essentials. Operators in need of rider ambassadors’ assistance can contact dispatch and have them directed to their streetcar if someone on board is in need of assistance, but they will spend most of their time in the field as a visible presence in the system. 

Plambeck said the goal of this program is a reduction in security and police responses for situations where there is not an immediate threat to riders or streetcar personnel. 

“Being able to show that we can peacefully de-escalate situations and help people get where they need to go before something happens will hopefully be proof of concept that can be shared with other transit agencies,” Plambeck said. “We really want to create another layer within the continuum of care for some of the most vulnerable members of our community.”

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