As Transit Cops Near, Cap Metro’s Other Public Safety Personnel Thrive

Safe on the bus

A Cap Metro bus (photo by John Anderson)

On a cool fall day last year at a heavily trafficked bus stop in Austin, a person experiencing homelessness appeared unwell. In fact, it was unclear if he was even breathing. Fortunately, this is the scenario that Cap Metro envisioned when it launched the public safety ambassador program in October 2021. A nearby ambassador phoned EMS and stayed with the man, who had a faint pulse, until they arrived.

“Had it not been for the intervention of this ambassador, EMS said this person wouldn’t be here today,” said Brian Robinson, Cap Metro’s public safety ambassador manager.

Although Cap Metro’s board approved hiring a police force, it’s not expected to start until the end of the year. Nonetheless, its revamped public safety program is well underway. In addition to the roughly 25 unarmed public safety ambassadors, the public transit agency has three community intervention specialists – a role that looks similar to a social worker. These specialists can connect riders with mental health, substance use, and housing services. With such small teams, Cap Metro officials said they use a mix of data and requests from bus operators and riders to determine where to place ambassadors throughout the network.

Robinson said that his team, which is made up of mostly people with customer service, law enforcement, or security backgrounds, will make referrals to the team of community intervention specialists, which is led by Holly Winge. Recently an ambassador noticed a mother and son that seemed to be unhoused. They became two of the 20 unhoused riders that Winge’s team has helped secure housing for.

As the public transit agency praises the initial results of the two units, the question becomes: Does Cap Metro need an armed police force? Cap Metro Chief Safety Officer Gardner Tabon is unwavering on that front. “I would hope that society would put us out of work, but I don’t know that society is honestly going in that direction.”

Once it receives Texas Commission on Law Enforcement certification, which Tabon hopes will be by early April, Cap Metro will look to hire around 12 armed police officers for its force this year, with the end goal of a 50-person police department. Funding public safety initiatives will cost $9.5 million this fiscal year, according to a Cap Metro spokesperson.

Both Robinson and Winge expressed a desire to grow their teams, but they also pointed to some potential benefits of working with a Cap Metro police force. “I feel like it will actually be easier to collaborate, because we’ll have dedicated people. Right now, it’s just kind of based on who picks up the shift, and it’s not always super consistent,” Winge said, referring to Cap Metro’s current model of contracting with the Austin Police Department.

Conversations about public transit policing are playing out across the country, as agencies try to create safer environments for their customers and employees. Despite the discrepancy in size, Austin and Los Angeles have taken similar approaches.

“I would hope that society would put us out of work, but I don’t know that society is honestly going in that direction.”   – Cap Metro Chief Safety Officer Gardner Tabon

Tala Oszkay is a researcher with ACT-LA, a coalition of over 40 Los Angeles-based organizations that focus on housing and transit justice. Unlike Tabon, Oszkay can envision a world without police on transit. “The culture of policing is, in our opinion, very fundamentally flawed,” she said. “We feel like you need to cultivate community and trust that makes people feel safer, not coming into the bus with a heightened sense of, 'Oh, this is an unsafe place where I need a gun or I need the presence of a police officer.’” She added that she is optimistic that the Los Angeles Metro’s police force will be thwarted, as, unlike Cap Metro’s force, it has yet to be approved by its board of directors.

Part of ACT-LA’s rationale for not needing a police force is the success of a transit ambassador program similar to Cap Metro’s. Survey results found that 63% of Los Angeles Metro riders felt safer after seeing an ambassador and 61% wanted to see more on the system. Cap Metro has yet to conduct such a survey specifically about its ambassadors.

On the other end of the spectrum, Houston’s recently elected Mayor John Whitmire wants to bring the METRO Police Department under the Houston Police Department roof. Christof Spieler, a lecturer at Rice University who served on the METRO board from 2010-2018, said there are pros and cons to having a public transit police force. He points out that some think we have enough police forces and it would be more efficient to work with city police. On the other hand, a separate transit police force gives the agency more control.

Spieler said that much of the push for public safety on buses and trains is about perception. Riders will feel safer if stations are well lit, have a visible staff presence, and make emergency call boxes accessible. Along those lines, Tabon noted that Cap Metro implemented barriers on buses that would impede a rider from attacking an operator.

Spieler said the reality is that people are less likely to commit crimes on buses and trains. For example, a study of the Los Angeles Metro found no evidence of a new transit line increasing crime. But Cap Metro is aware of the need to improve the perception of safety throughout its system. A 2023 Cap Metro customer survey found that 81% of riders feel safe on board – a jump from the 75% of riders who said they felt safe in 2022. With data like that in mind, Tabon remains confident in the public transit agency’s direction. “Our desire is to create an environment that is welcoming to all, and to do that, you have to have a public safety element.”

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