Why do BART Police Have So Many SUVs?

At 77 SUVs for about 200 cops, that's about as many cars-per-cop as the California Highway Patrol

Three BART police SUVs taking up the loading zone next to Lake Merritt BART (and across the street from their police station parking lot). Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Three BART police SUVs taking up the loading zone next to Lake Merritt BART (and across the street from their police station parking lot). Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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The lead photo is a typical scene outside of the Lake Merritt BART station, across the street from BART police headquarters. For some reason, despite the large parking lot behind their building, and additional overflow parking under the freeway nearby, BART police still seem to find it necessary to leave their SUV cruisers illegally parked (see last image too).

But with 77 SUVs, maybe it’s just hard to store them all.

The bigger question, of course is why does a transit police force of just 206 sworn officers need that many cars in the first place. That’s .385 cars per officer. “40 of the 77 SUVs are black-and-white patrol vehicles. There are 31 SUVs (marked and unmarked) used by the Community Service Officers for parking enforcement and other tasks. There are six unmarked BPD SUVs for administrative use,” clarified James Allison, a spokesperson for BART, in an email to Streetsblog.

Community Service Officers can’t ride the trains to get to the parking lots to write tickets?

For some rough perspective, the San Francisco Police Department (going from what Streetsblog could find online) has 338 cars and 2,108 officers. That comes to .16 cars per officer. SBSF has a request in for more exact data and will update accordingly. A BART official said it’s unfair to compare SFPD, because BART covers four counties. But that does seem fair to Streetsblog, considering that BART PD also has BART at their disposal to get around.

Furthermore, the California Highway Patrol, which surely needs more cars than any other police force in the state, has 2,316 cars, SUVs, and all-terrain vehicles. At 7,598 officers, the ratio is roughly .30 cars per officer (CHP also uses 400 motorcycles and a smattering of other vehicles). Streetsblog also has requests for numbers of cars per cop in to Oakland Police and a few agencies in other regions.

Meanwhile, BART’s SUVs are called Ford Police Interceptor Utility vehicles and they are the law-enforcement variant on the Ford Explorer. The cars, which have a 365 hp engine, get about 17 mpg. Four are hybrids, explained Allison. The hybrids get 24 mpg. The SUVs, when fully outfitted, cost $45,000 each. “The vehicles are purchased on the contract with the State of California (California Highway Patrol) so BART PD receives the same pricing.”

Okay, so maybe they save some money by combining purchases with CHP, but they could save even more money if they didn’t buy them in the first place. Besides, they still have to maintain and fuel these beasts. Why does a transit police force need such large, high-horsepower cars with “killer grills” on the front–it’s not as if they’re regularly (or ever) pushing cars to the shoulder of the freeway, like CHP has to do.

This matters, because as Streetsblog has previously reported, SUVs are dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists.

Image: Don Kostelec
And thanks to the killer grills, BART police’s SUVs concentrate energy and increase the potential for damage to a human body. Image by transportation planner and advocate Don Kostelec.

The grills just make that situation worse. However, “They can be used to push through a fence, clear debris or to push disabled vehicles off the road. One could imagine this could be a critical tool in the aftermath of a natural disaster such as an earthquake,” explained Allison.

It’s unclear how this applies for transit police. Are they going to push through a BART tunnel? Can a police car with a grill push through a pile of rubble, but it can’t without the grill? On the other hand, they could also buy M1 Abrams tanks. Those would be pretty useful for pushing through debris after an earthquake (maybe we shouldn’t give BART PD any ideas).

Maybe we've got this all wrong and BART police should drive these? Photo: Wikimedia commons
Maybe BART PD could add a grill to this M1? Photo: Wikimedia commons

In press reports at least, BART police justify having cars because most crimes don’t occur on trains, but rather at stations. So the cars give them flexibility. “PD said that response time was consistently faster to drive from station to station. My colleagues were definitely interested in fast response times, but also saw value in more BART PD presence on trains,” wrote former BART board president Tom Radulovich, in an email to Streetsblog.

Fair enough. But in our view it strains credibility to believe that a transit police force needs quite so many heavy automobiles–especially for community service officers and parking enforcement. Yes, the police need some cars. And maybe they need a certain number of SUVs or trucks. But police forces should be using safe, fuel-efficient cars.

Most importantly, whenever possible, BART police and community service officers should be riding the trains alongside the passengers they’re paid to serve. If they’ve got this many cars, that isn’t happening.

BART police also leave their cars in the new protected bike lane intersection treatments are Lake Merritt BART.
BART police also frequently leave their cars in the new protected bike lane intersection treatments at Lake Merritt BART.
  • mx

    “Community Service Officers can’t ride the trains to get to the parking lots to write tickets?”

    I’m sure BART would tell us that it would be inefficient for Community Service Officers to stand around for 15-25 minutes waiting for a train and they can do their jobs so much more effectively when they have cars, and that’s when I’d look directly at the camera.

  • thielges

    Every minute a BART officer spends in a car is a minute not spent protecting passengers. While it is understandable that cars are useful for patrolling vast suburban parking lots, what is more important: protecting property or protecting people?

    Hire lower cost private security firms to patrol the lots and save the important and challenging work of protecting the actual transit system to the well trained BART police officers.

  • OaktownPRE

    Why do BART police have SUVs at all? They should be walking the platform in the station or being on the trains. There’s no need for more than twenty vehicles at most. And I don’t believe there’s 206 BART cops in any case. What are they doing most of the time? Sitting in their expensive SUVs? I never see them in the stations.

  • DrunkEngineer

    BART police spend a lot of time investigating serious crimes, tracking down and arresting suspects. Those arrests often take place far away from a BART station, which explains why they have motor vehicles. But you make a good point about the large SUV, when a small sedan should be more than adequate.

  • Roger R.

    Well said!

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Yes but the underlying question is why our police services are so fragmented. I know BART serves several different jurisdictions, but AC Transit serves four counties and they contract with the Contra Costa County Sheriff for their law enforcement needs. Do we really need five hundred different police forces in the Bay Area?

  • Jeffrey Baker
  • Sean Hussey

    Being in an SUV is very inefficient for getting down to the track versus being at the track already.

  • Roger R.

    That’s intentional. There’s plenty of room in those treatments to park on the purple. That’s a cop saying “f*ck bikes”

  • David

    Complainy blog post is complainy. What are the vehicle-to-officer ratios for comparable agencies? SFPD and CHP are not peer agencies. Check with other transit police forces and/or cities that have populations comparable to BART system usage and then get back to us with a meaningful rant. Otherwise this just comes across as tinfoil hat rantings from those Copwatch types in Berkeley.

    P.S. Large rear-wheel-drive sedans are no longer made, which is why most new police interceptors are SUVs. Fun fact: these SUVs still get better gas mileage than the last generation of Crown Vics.

  • Sean

    It’s even sillier to have a SMART police force then, with a Chief and everything. BART carries more in two days that SMART does all year.

    https://www.progressiverailroading.com/security/news/SMART-sets-up-law-enforcement-division-names-Welch-police-chief–46793

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Totally. SMART should just have partnered with either county sheriff (or both), unless there’s some obscure railroad regulation that forced them to do it.

  • Sean

    Want to hear something crazy? The new BART garage at Walnut Creek has a BPD substation, which makes sense right? But with the new developer there, a deal was cut so the actual parking lot is patrolled by…the City of Walnut Creek. So say there was an incident, would BART PD just hold their hands up and wait for WCPD?

  • Frank Kotter

    LEOs are forced to use a poor fit to purpose vehicle because the crown Victoria is no longer manufactured?

    I don’t follow.

  • Nicholas L

    I learned cops like SUVs because they are more comfy for heftier officers.

    It’s a cycle amd hey, the millions in fuel is free to them.

  • Nicholas L

    Can’t we submit pics to 311 and See Click Fix app too?

  • Nicholas L

    There is a new 40mpg hybrid Ford police intercetor too that saves $4,000 in fuel annually.

  • Nicholas L

    Possible corruption or nepotism.

  • Nicholas L

    *our expensive and always idling SUVs

  • david vartanoff

    This is BART from the get go. In Mike Healy’s memoirs as their chief flack,he mentions being asked to come out to Concord to chat w/an FBIagent. Did he take the elevator from his office to the Lake Merritt station and then BART to Concord? No, he drove.
    In a different situation, when I was on my way toan AC Transit Transbay Taskforce meeting, the then AC T chief planner got on the train I was on to go into SF.

  • City Resident

    Thank you for covering this issue. Our society has a blind spot for automobiles, especially when it comes to law enforcement agencies it seems. BART likes to promote itself as a friend of “blue skies” and clean air, which I believe it is or can be. But an unnecessary or excessive reliance on gas guzzlers by its law enforcement officers – who are most needed in trains and stations whenever the system is in operation – contradicts this.

    On a rather unrelated note, I recently was at the Irvine train station waiting for Amtrak. It was a warm, pleasant evening and we went outside to wait. Nearby an unmanned Irvine PD SUV was parked and unattended with its motor left idling. (There’s an Irvine PD substation at this multi-modal transit station.) This vehicle’s exhaust made waiting near it unpleasant and unhealthy. I inquired at the PD substation about the idling and unoccupied police SUV, and I was informed that the officer always leaves her car with its motor idling. I observed this car idle for 45 minutes, before the officer returned to the car and drove off. (It seems to me, treating our atmosphere like an open sewer is a crime and contradicts the notion of protecting and serving.)

    An over-reliance on police cruisers, especially oversized cruisers, diminishes our collective efforts to prevent air pollution, slow climate change, and promote alternative transportation.

  • Michael Escobar

    You wouldn’t have 206 officers on duty at the same time, except maybe during a big event. If officers are working 12 hour shifts and working 7 days a week, you’d have 103 officers on duty at the same time, at most. It’s probably less than that, with staggered shifts/schedules. But I’m only guessing here.

  • Michael Escobar

    I think the underlying question really is why all of our local government is so fragmented. If you accept the need for the number of school districts, cities, counties, etc., that we currently have between Martinez and Gilroy, then you should also accept the need for all the different police forces we have. It’s (the illusion of) local control. But that ship has sailed, since SF tried and failed to annex its neighbors after “New York” (Manhattan) succeeded in annexing 4 of the boroughs that surrounded it in the late 19th century. As for BART, there’s actually one good reason for it to have its own police force: extensive training is needed to conduct public safety interventions in train stations and on board trains. If you’re a passenger waiting for the cops to respond to your call, you want the cops to know how the trains work, how the third rail works, how the station infrastructure works.

  • David

    What’s a LEO? The Explorer is Ford’s purpose built police interceptor. Not sure what you don’t get about that?

  • omfo

    Law Enforcement Officer.

  • Frank Kotter

    LEO: law enforcement officer

    Oh, that officials call it the ‘purpose built’ device is not in question. That they are so far off realizing what their purpose actually is is however plain to us all.

  • David

    Are you aware of how much gear police officers are required to transport with them? It’s a wonder they didn’t switch to SUVs years ago.

  • Betty

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  • flyingburgers

    The Crown Vic is a larger car than an Explorer. The Crown Vic had 20.6 cubic feet of storage space, the Explorer has 18.2. You may not have realized this, but the Crown Vic is long vehicle. The Crown Vic is 212 inches long, the Explorer is more than a foot shorter at 199. And as mentioned, the Crown Vic was rated at 17 MPG city, the Explorer gets 21.

    Basically we have people ASSuming that a modern SUV is larger than a obsolete large RWD sedan.

  • flyingburgers

    BART is basically closed 5 hours on weeknights, 6 hours on Saturday and 8 hours on Sunday. That means 39 hours closed leaving 129 hours open per week. To avoid overtime, you want to pay 40 hours per week, so it means you need 3.25 shifts. You need less people during some periods, so let’s say 3. 206/3 is 68 officers at a time minus those gone at training, vacations, sick etc.

  • Frank Kotter

    Exactly. Both are ridiculously ill-fitted to purpose. But an SUV with bull bars in an fully urban environment is certainly worse. This is not a contest of one verses the other., it is ‘what is the best possible’.

    Unfortunately, policing in the U.S., even in a city like SF, is dominated by meathead culture whereby driving a practical car is seen as ‘wimpy’.

  • anon_coward

    that’s how the USA works. you have governments at all levels with different powers and each level has it’s own jurisdiction. People in one county like to do things differently than other counties and states. In some cases they share resources.

  • Roger R.
  • David

    How long will it take SF to burn down to the ground if SFFD switches to bikes only? Answer: We won’t know because switching SFPD to bikes only means we will all die first.

  • flyingburgers

    I don’t know about BART, but London Underground’s 2-person emergency police teams drive in full-size Ford Transit vans. Among other things they carry the specialized jacks needed to raise the train, because one person jumps underneath a train every 3 days. The normal fire brigade (department) doesn’t carry that equipment. They also carry metal caskets because the bodies get severely mangled by the train so body bags are difficult to handle.

    Transit systems aren’t a pretty place.

  • bagh53

    As if there wasn’t anything more convenient to use Bart for than *going between stations*.

    LITERALLY COULDN’T BE ANY CLOSER
    and the schedules are super frequent so I don’t see the issue.. Maybe Bart doesn’t trust their own reliability? We are all overthinking this it is just constrained thinking…

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