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Villanueva calls for stepped up homeless enforcement on L.A. County transit

Pointing to several recent high-profile assaults on the Los Angeles County transit system, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Tuesday that his department would ramp up enforcement against homeless riders who attack and harass fellow passengers.

Villanueva said his plan, dubbed “Operation Safe Travel,” calls for deploying scores of deputies and investigators from more than a dozen specialized units, including the Narcotics, Major Crimes and Special Enforcement bureaus, to combat growing lawlessness on Metro property that he said forces some riders to “step over dead bodies or people injecting themselves.”

The announcement comes at a time when the county’s transit system, like other major transportation networks across the U.S., is grappling with how best to address crime and homelessness while trying to lure back riders lost during the pandemic.

Villanueva’s get-tough stance puts him at odds with some advocates, who worry about the criminalization of homeless riders.

The sheriff also has clashed with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which for years has discussed alternatives to law enforcement on the transit system. Possible measures have included spending to hire more unarmed ambassadors to work at stations and handle nonviolent calls.

The board recently voted to require all deputies and officers assigned to the transit system to be vaccinated — a jab at Villanueva, who has refused to enforce the county’s employee vaccine mandate.

At Tuesday’s news conference, Villanueva said his department’s new initiative would seek not only to address violent attacks, but also drug use and human trafficking. It also would focus on concerns raised by riders and Metro employees in surveys, ranging from harassment and disturbing outbursts to the pervasive smell of urine in elevators.

Sheriff’s officials at the event showed a graph indicating that violent crimes have jumped significantly across the Metro system over the first few months of the year. But officials said, when pressed by reporters, that they didn’t immediately know how many of those incidents involved people who were unhoused.

To make his point, Villanueva showed reporters a slide that featured several recent violent episodes in which the suspect was unhoused. Among the listed incidents were an “execution-style” shooting last December and the sexual assault of a woman who Villanueva said was dragged into bushes by an attacker who was eventually subdued by passersby.

The victims tend to be people of color, who are reliant on public transit to get around, he said.

Villanueva said that, by the time law enforcement is called to address such incidents it is too late to prevent criminal behavior. He said the beefed up patrols would focus on “early intervention.”

Villanueva and his subordinates said deputies would offer to connect apparently homeless riders with mental health and other services under the new effort. The news conference was otherwise light on specifics about how the plan would work.

For instance, the sheriff said homeless riders who are simply “going from Point A to Point B” would not be bothered, but did not clarify how his deputies would identify would-be troublemakers.

Many of the deputies involved in the planned “surge” will come from the department’s Transit Services Bureau; they will be available for visibility and outreach, Villanueva said. These include members of the mental health outreach team and K-9 deputies.

The Metro board contracts with the sheriff, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Long Beach Police Department to patrol its sprawling network of trains and buses. Villanueva made headlines earlier this year, when he issued an ultimatum of sorts to the agency, threatening that his department would stop patrolling Metro’s transit system unless he was given full control over security on the entire system.

The board authorized extending its three-agency contract for up to a year to allow time to develop a new process for selecting an agency or agencies to handle security. But a contingency plan that could involve mutual aid agreements with other law enforcement agencies has been drawn up should Villanueva pull out of the contract or fail to comply with the county’s vaccine mandate by July; the plan is scheduled to be discussed at the board’s next meeting Thursday.

Villanueva and other sheriff’s officials said the Sheriff’s Department would submit to Metro a proposal for about 600 deputies to patrol the transit system for $30 million less annually than what Metro currently pays for the same level of staffing.

Figuring out how best to address the growing number of unhoused residents who are relying on the transit system for shelter is a particularly vexing problem for county officials.

The number of homeless riders has exploded in recent years — along with those of the general homeless population — with hundreds of encampments having sprung up on or near Metro-owned property, facilities, and rights-of-way. The agency counted 5,700 homeless riders on its system in August.

Asked Tuesday whether his plan would violate the Board’s existing policing pact, Villanueva responded that it would only “conflict with some of the illegal parts of Metro’s contract,” which he contended opened participating agencies up to “enormous liability” if passengers are harmed.

“They were chasing an ideology that some saw law enforcement as a problem, that we were oppressive and we were scaring passengers,” he said of the Metro Board. “Well right now, passengers, they don’t want to be set on fire.”

In response to Villanueva’s announcement Tuesday, Metro released a statement saying safety remained its top priority and pledged to continue working with the Sheriff’s Department “as outlined in our contract extension for the next year.”

“As the year proceeds, Metro will evaluate all of our options to identify the most effective path forward to create the safest and most comfortable environment possible for our customers and employees,” the statement read.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who chairs the Metro board, said in a brief statement that the board “works collaboratively with contracted law enforcement agencies to improve public safety issues on our transit network,” but that it hadn’t yet received details about Operation Safe Travel.

Times staff writer Rachel Uranga contributed to this report.



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