Op-ed: We Need Police Visibility on Muni

Crimes Keep Happening on San Francisco's Buses and Trains

Photo: SFMTA
Photo: SFMTA

Over the weekend, 40 to 60 teenagers swarmed a BART station and train, robbing seven people. The story grabbed the headlines because it was so out of the ordinary. But several disturbing crimes have also hit Muni over the last few months.

At 9:40 p.m. on April 12, a mob of about 10 teenagers beat up a 30-year-old woman who was riding the 5-Fulton. When the bus stopped at Fillmore and McAllister streets, they dragged her onto the street and took her phone, wallet, and bag. On the social media site Nextdoor two similar attacks were reported nearby in the same week.

In March, a woman’s hair was set on fire while riding the 9-San Bruno and the driver of a 38-Geary bus was punched by a man with a knife. On February 9, a passenger on the T-Third line was shot in the head.

There have also been sexual assaults. “The Muni humper,” a man who allegedly groped multiple women on the N-Judah, was arrested earlier this month. Last month, a different man on a bus groped a woman and she Tasered him, leaving the alleged perpetrator writhing on the floor. In 2012, The New York Times cited research that most sexual crimes on transit aren’t even reported.

There are stories that don’t generate headlines, such as that of Karen, who declined to give her last name. Her cell phone was lifted from her purse Wednesday morning after she got off of the 21-Hayes near her office downtown. But other than fare inspectors and police who react to crimes that have already taken place, where are the patrols? “I don’t see anyone really monitoring crime,” she said.

How is Muni Policed?

According to SFMTA, there are three teams that police Muni–a canine team with five dogs, an undercover team, and uniformed patrols. In total, that comes to 20 or fewer officers patrolling Muni at any given time. Moreover, none of the officers are dedicated to patrolling Muni–they are borrowed from other beats and duties. Meanwhile, Chris Grabarkiewctz, SFMTA’s chief security officer, said that when the police department deploys officers to patrol vehicles and stations, it targets lines with high crime.

Compare the handful of moonlighting officers who patrol Muni to the BART police department, which has 347 personnel and 227 sworn peace officers. Those officers police a system with daily ridership of 419,710, significantly less than Muni’s 718,320 daily trips. Or look at New York, with 2,600 uniformed officers who are dedicated to policing trains, buses and stations. New York’s transit system has 5.7 million daily rides. San Francisco would need 325 uniformed officers to reach New York’s equivalent level of police presence.

It wasn’t always like this. In 1996, SFPD’s Muni detail had 80 officers, a number Mayor Willie Brown considered inadequate. He also launched a program that required all 1,000 beat cops to board Muni vehicles twice a day. The program is no longer in place but resulted in crime dropping 31 percent in its first months of implementation, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Police Visibility

Around the world, police, military, and customer service personnel are highly visible on many transit systems.

In New York, policing methods encourage visibility of uniformed officers, including stationing individual officers on subway platforms. These officers stand ramrod straight, gaze fixed forward, as if on sentry duty. By contrast, SFPD officers are hard to spot anywhere on Muni, except for a handful who seem to hang out, slouch and chat among themselves at the Powell Street station.

Why aren’t they spread out across Muni’s platforms, stops, and vehicles? Officer Giselle Talkoff, a spokesperson for the police department, did not respond to requests for more information.

Though New York struggles with crime, its transit system is seeing record ridership numbers. “Some of that can certainly be attributable to the decline in crime inside the system,” said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesperson for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Riders Switch to Uber and Lyft

In Muni’s 2016 ridership survey, only 55 percent of riders report that they feel safe and secure. Among the top issues riders would like to see improved are security, safety from crime, and enforcement of minor infractions.

An SFMTA spokesperson said that 3.8 crimes happened for every 100,000 miles Muni traveled in February, which meets the agency’s goals, with the crime rate headed downward. But that metric is connected to vehicle miles, not passenger miles–not the number of people who ride Muni. An average of 32,380 fewer people got on Muni every day in February compared to a year ago. Any drop in crime could just be a byproduct of fewer people riding the system.

Even as our streets become increasingly gridlocked, when asked in 2015, 29 percent of Muni riders considered ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft a better alternative, a number that’s likely to grow as the price of ridesharing services drops. Therefore, by Muni’s measure, crime will continue to go down on its trains and buses.

Will Muni be left only with riders like Hannah Gordon, who I met Thursday night at around 11 pm, while waiting for a bus on Haight Street? Gordon said that many of her friends had been victims of crimes on Muni. An occasional user of Lyft, she said, “If I could afford it, I probably would not take public transit late at night.”

How Should San Francisco Move Forward?

Muni needs visible, police patrols on buses, trains, and platforms, on levels consistent with other transit systems.

On the other hand, while it’s good for riders to be vigilant, we also don’t want to scare away riders needlessly. Riding transit is still very safe, relative to other modes of transportation. Rachel Hyden, the new executive director of the San Francisco Transit Riders, was mugged on Muni. But even with her experience, she doesn’t like the recording riders hear on buses and trains, the one that urges riders to “keep your eyes up and your phone down.”

“We’re basically telling riders, ‘Get your flack jacket and brass knuckles on. It’s not going to be safe, you need to be on guard,’” she said. “If you feel like you’re going to get mugged on the bus, you’ll choose another option if you can.”

Little Hope For Real Change

Solving this problem will be tricky.

Our mayor and supervisors have proven that they rarely ride the buses and trains themselves. They don’t have a sense of how out of control Muni can feel. The chances that they would fund the level of police patrols we need is unlikely. Unless sustained pressure pushes our leaders to devote real, long-term resources to this problem, if any change happens it’s likely to be a short-term cosmetic fix. After a crime spree, we may see more officers on Muni for a few weeks, but it won’t last.

Our city deserves better.

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