BART looks to increase unarmed crisis staff as part of progressive police bureau

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- BART Police have announced a new plan to increase the number of crisis intervention specialists at stations throughout their system.

The plan, discussed at the BART Board of Directors meeting on Thursday, is an expansion of a program first announced last year under the newly formed Progressive Policing and Community Engagement Bureau.

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In total, BART Police plan to employ 20 crisis intervention specialists along with 10 other unarmed police ambassadors. The bureau will also include 10 sworn officers.

The teams will consist of two crisis specialists and one sworn officer, spread across five different stations in two shifts.

At the meeting on Thursday, BART staff unveiled data showing the types of calls that BART Police responded to in 2020. While officers responded to 4,660 incidents of crime, that was only 8% of overall dispatches. The biggest type of response was for "wellbeing and medical assistance," which comprised 39% of all calls.

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"Continuing to grow our progressive policing bureau with more crisis intervention specialists is critical," said Janice Li, a member of the BART Board of Directors.

The reasons behind the program seem to be multifaceted. Instead of hiring more sworn police officers, board members in support of the program hoped the addition of unarmed, but uniformed personnel would make riders feel safer.

"We know some of our riders are unhappy about their experience on BART and what we've been doing hasn't been working," said Vice President of the board, Rebecca Saltzman.

With a team trained to deal with mental health emergencies and homeless outreach, the crisis intervention specialists will also work as case managers, communicating with county and nonprofit agencies as needed.

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The goal is not only to have staff available to de-escalate certain situations, but to allow for sworn police officers to spend more time responding to crime.

"This lets our police respond to crime. That is more than enough for our department to do," said Bevan Duffy, member of the BART Board of Directors.

If successful, the end result could end up having a positive impact on ridership which had been declining since 2017.

"This approach is going to give us the best attempt to bring back our ridership," added Duffy.

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While there was broad acknowledgement by the board that issues of crime, homelessness and drug use need to be addressed, Director Debora Allen was skeptical of the plan.

"We are in the middle of a financial crisis. I think we have to be reasonable about some of these proposals," she said, referring to a projected $300 million budget deficit.

While aspects of the plan have been in place since February, she also questioned how BART Police would be be able to measure success of the program.

"I am concerned about embarking on pilot that is rather experimental," said Allen.

CORRECTION: The video version of this story states 10 crisis intervention specialists have already been hired, which is incorrect. BART Police have hired 10 ambassadors, but as of January 2021, they have not yet hired any crisis intervention specialists.

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