By Rachel Swan San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — BART has ended emergency police patrols that it began after the fatal stabbing of a young woman on a train platform in Oakland, and switched to a leaner staffing plan that it can keep long-term.
At the same time, the agency is struggling to fill vacancies in its force, amid a string of headline-grabbing crimes and a steady increase in complaints about transients and drug use.
The transit agency has long made do with a thin law enforcement staff. But in August it stretched that police force as far as it could go, requiring all cops, dispatchers, non-sworn community service officers and other staff to work 10 hour shifts, six days a week. The change came as BART officials reeled from the slaying of 18-year-old Nia Wilson, who was stabbed from behind at MacArthur Station.
“We’ve had this rash of random acts of violence, and the only way to quell that is to have a lot of officers present,” said BART Police Officers Association President Keith Garcia. “But we’re down bodies.”
Forty-two, to be precise. BART has 26 openings in a force that’s authorized to hire 178 officers. At least three members of the rank-and-file are applying for jobs in other law enforcement agencies, and 16 are out with injuries.
So the heightened patrols couldn’t last forever, Garcia said.
“How long do you think we can have people work six days a week on their feet all day, carrying 20 pounds of gear on their uniform?” he said.
On Monday, the agency shifted to voluntary overtime. Managers seek at least four officers every day to work additional hours patrolling trains and stations. Separately, BART has called for 10 community service officers to do voluntary overtime on weekends.
Under normal circumstances, five to 10 officers solely ride trains, and another 24 are required to board a train at least four times during their shifts. That may change. Police Chief Carlos Rojas made recruitment and training priorities when he took the job last year, a time when BART was mired in an even more severe officer shortage, with 41 vacancies.
He’s gradually chipped away at the problem by speeding up training and offering $10,000 hiring bonuses to new officers.
“I think he’s already made good changes and there are more to come,” said Director Debora Allen, whose district runs from Lafayette to Concord.
Last year, BART commissioned a police staffing study from the University of North Texas, which is scheduled to go before the board next month. Garcia expects it will recommend that the agency hire more officers.
Violent crime on BART has increased 66 percent in the past five years, and officials are grappling with the increasingly in-your-face homelessness and opioid crises. Wilson’s killing drew a harsh spotlight to the rail line, prompting General Manager Grace Crunican to propose $28 million in safety measures — including the emergency police staffing.
BART also lined up a $6.8 million federal grant this week to improve its security systems and add police on trains traveling through the busiest stations.
The recent wave of attacks continued during the mandatory six-day-a-week police shifts, with stabbings at MacArthur, Hayward and Warm Springs stations.
But having the extra police presence helped, Garcia said.
“We were high-profile, we were riding the trains and when things happened, we quickly identified the individuals involved,” he noted.
Garcia and others would like to keep that many officers on duty on a regular basis. But the transit agency might have to make the job more attractive. When the Police Officers Association compared salaries at 10 Bay Area law enforcement agencies, BART’s wages of $8,417 a month for its top staff was the second-lowest, just above Concord Police Department’s rate of $8,410 a month.
The association is in contract negotiations with BART management, and at least one member of the agency’s board, Joel Keller, supports the call for salary increases.
He said that frequent attacks and deteriorating conditions are eroding riders’ confidence.
“It’s just a function of society today — BART is a microcosm,” Keller said, recalling a conversation he had recently with two riders from Brentwood who stopped taking their grandchildren to the theater on BART because of the crime.