For years, spotting a police officer on Muni has been about as likely as winning the lottery, even though officers are required to ride transit vehicles twice per shift. As a result, fare evasion, tagging, eating, and other violations are rampant on the city’s transit system, and crime on Muni hasn’t declined in recent months even as it’s gone down across the city. So, as the San Francisco Police Department sent dozens of uniformed and plainclothes officers onto Muni en masse today, Ingleside Cpt. David Lazar said it shouldn’t be hard to hit the jackpot when it comes to finding violators.
"I think it’s going to come as a very big surprise to people who get away with eating or fare evasion on a daily basis," Lazar said during a lunchtime briefing at Tenderloin Station. Immediately after the briefing, officers set out on a citywide sting to find violators of all types. It’s all part of Operation Safe Muni, a program Lazar started in the Ingleside District in September after several high-profile attacks on Muni, and reports of widespread fare evasion and theft.
After two Operation Safe Muni stings in Ingleside were deemed successful, SFPD decided to launch today’s citywide sting and evaluate the results. "It’s a zero tolerance approach to crime on Muni," said Lazar, who recently became captain of Ingleside Station and made news earlier this year when he ordered stings on drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians.
During the briefing, which was attended by police officers and reporters, Lazar told officers to focus on Muni lines with the highest concentration of problems. "Don’t just ride a bus whenever you feel like it, ride the bus when all the action’s happening," he said. "You know where crime happens. Pick your high commute times."
Kristen Holland, a spokesperson for the MTA, said the agency welcomes the SFPD’s efforts. "We’re certainly very pleased to be working with them and seeing this cooperative, collaborative effort put in place. Hopefully it will be successful."
The question, of course, is whether one day of high-profile stings will make a difference. Supervisor Bevan Dufty said he’ll be watching closely to see if SFPD follows up. "I think I can speak for Muni riders who are happy to hear today that police officers are in fact going to be riding the lines that are having the most problems. I think that’s a smart way to focus resources," said Dufty. "But I’m going to continue to ask the public to let me know that they see these officers riding."
Dufty added, "My message to the new police chief is, the best thing you can do is have officers visibly riding the system. It helps prevent crime, it helps make it a more pleasant experience, and it’s going to avoid fare evasions."
The MTA pays the SFPD for its officers to ride Muni regularly, but, at least until recently, the agency hasn’t been getting its money worth. The SFPD’s Bus Inspection Program requires each sergeant in a patrol division and each officer "assigned to a radio car" to make two transit inspections per shift, and officers on foot patrol are required to make at least four inspections per shift. In spite of that rule, Muni riders have reported rarely seeing officers on Muni vehicles. SFPD is now testing a program to track officers’ Muni rides by requiring them to tag TransLink cards as they board and exit vehicles.
Dufty is holding a hearing on November 23 with the new SFPD deputy chief in charge of safety operations on Muni, John Murphy, which he hopes will provide insight into how that program is going. "We’ve had commitments made before and I have not seen officers visible on Muni," Dufty noted.
After a day of riding buses and writing citations, officers involved in Operation Safe Muni will meet later in the evening to debrief, according to Sgt. Wilfred Williams, an SFPD spokesperson. By tomorrow morning, said Williams, SFPD will provide an update on how the operation went, and then determine whether more stings will be carried out.
SFPD plans to announce each operation, but will broadcasting it in advance undermine the department’s efforts?
As Lazar told Streetsblog about his station’s pedestrian sting this summer, probably not. "You could do a big announcement right now and we’re still going to write a hundred citations," Lazar said at the time. He was referring to drivers not stopping for pedestrians, but the same may prove equally true for bad behavior on Muni, where a police officer is still the last thing most riders expect to see.