The history of RTD’s (and MTA’s) in-house transit police force: 1978-1997

You may have heard that we’ve been studying the idea of forming an in-house public safety department. Here’s what we’ve done so far:

  • In June 2023, the Metro Board of Directors received the findings of a feasibility study about the potential program.
  • Last fall, our Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) held listening sessions with riders.
  • This past January, we provided a progress report on an implementation plan to the Board
  • Last week, the recommendations for an in-house public safety department developed by the PSAC-created Ad Hoc Committees were presented to the Operations Committee.

Tonight (June 25) a proposed implementation plan will be presented at our PSAC meeting. On Thursday (June 27), this plan will be considered by the Metro Board of Directors.

We know that policing is a complex and controversial topic. And we know that you may have questions about everything from recruitment and training to implementation and cost. As we weigh the potential benefits and challenges of instituting an in-house transit public safety department, it’s important to remember that this idea isn’t without precedent. In fact, it’s an idea that we’ve been developing for nearly 30 years. Between 1978 and 1997, the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD), which merged into our agency in 1993, operated its own police force. At its height, with over 500 officers, it was the 10th largest police force in California and the largest transit police force in the nation. And, many transit agencies throughout the country have in-house police departments, too, such as the Bay Area’s BART, Massachusetts’ MBTA, Atlanta’s MARTA, Washington DC’s WMATA, and New Jersey Transit.

––

The origins of SCRTD’s transit police might sound familiar in today’s climate (I’ll refer to SCRTD as RTD from here on out). During the 1960s, crime rose dramatically in big cities across the country, and Los Angeles was no exception. “Police Department statistics reveal that since 1963 crime in Los Angeles has increased by 71 percent while the population has grown only by approximately 15 percent” read the minutes of a 1973 special meeting of the RTD board of directors. The upsurge of crime affected the entire region, but bus operators –– often because they carried cash and provided change to customers –– became targets of violent attacks. In January 1967, a bus operator was murdered during an armed robbery, sparking agency-wide outrage and the implementation of an exact fare policy in 1969.

As this 1970 article in the Daily News illustrates, the exact fare program was incredibly successful, but bus operators still required more protection

Violence against bus operators catalyzed an emergency procurement to retrofit buses with voice radio and silent alarm systems, not unlike the way we are retrofitting our buses with full-length, high-visibility, shatter-resistant plexiglass operator barriers today. Yet these improvements weren’t enough to restore public safety.

RTD did have a security force known as the Special Agents (you might think of them as akin to today’s Transit Security Officers, or TSOs). But they operated on a shoestring budget, had been stripped of their peace officer status years before, and lacked the authority to make arrests (many of them didn’t even carry arms). And, despite decreases in robberies during the early 1970s thanks to the exact fare policy, violent crimes on buses continued to rise. According to the 1973 RTD special meeting I linked above, there had been 95 assaults on bus operators through the first 10 months of 1973, exceeding the total for all of 1972 and the combined total for the years 1970 and 1971. For comparison, we recorded 168 operator assaults in 2023.

During the 1970s, operator assaults reached crisis levels. (Note that RTD didn’t begin systematically collecting bus crime data until 1970, with significant revisions to its system in 1978, so the early numbers are likely much lower than reality.) This graphic was published in the Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1980

Because RTD’s service area crossed so many jurisdictions, policing transit proved challenging for existing law enforcement agencies (given that LA County contains 88 cities, this is still an issue today). “They were slow to respond to calls for service, especially if the bus was moving,” Sharon Papa, the RTD (and later MTA) Chief of Police from 1989-1997, explained to me. “For example, police officers knew that a bus traveling along Wilshire Boulevard from downtown would move out of their jurisdiction and into someone else’s fairly quickly. That particular line would pass through three different cities policed by the LAPD, Beverly Hills PD, and the Santa Monica PD, so unless the bus stopped and waited for them, officers didn’t ‘chase’ the bus.”

The bus operators’ union (back then it was UTU, or United Transportation Union) had the most at stake. Throughout the 1970s, members had staged sickouts and protests demanding better police protection. The union was crucial to the passage of state legislation that authorized RTD to employ its own peace officers to police the transit system. Initially included under section 830.4 of the California Penal Code (later section 830.33), the transit police launched in 1978. RTD wasn’t alone in this effort, incidentally. BART launched its own police force around the same time.

Recruitment for the new transit police department happened in stages. RTD leaders recruited experienced law enforcement officers from local jurisdictions for the staff command positions. They, in turn, initially hired off-duty officers from LAPD and LASD to staff patrol shifts while they recruited full-time officers. The Special Agents could also attend the police academy if they met the new hiring standards, passed a background investigation, and made it through training: an intense, 16-week state-approved course that took place at the Rio Hondo Police Academy in Whittier. These RTD employees were particularly valuable to the fledgling police department because most of them had been bus operators –– for a time, you had to work for two years as a bus operator before you could apply as a Special Agent. For this reason, these employees knew the transit system intimately: its patrons, its culture, and its security system and protocols.

Many RTD Special Agents enrolled in a grueling training course to become transit police, as shown in this 1979 employee newsletter.

The police force was very small initially; in 1980, there were only 37 full time officers –– hardly enough to manage a network of 2,600+ buses and 220 bus lines carrying over 1.3 million riders per day. Nevertheless, by 1981, the transit police had made over 1000 arrests, and had also reported significant decreases in robberies and crimes against persons. By 1985, RTD employed 70 sworn officers and 40 security guards.

Throughout the mid-80s, the police force continued to professionalize. It developed specific training tailored to transit crimes and outlined new deployment strategies and safety tactics. Clad in navy-blue uniforms, the transit police had their own crime analysts, statistics analysts, and performed their own sting operations. They successfully launched a “ride-along” program staffed by undercover decoy officers dressed as passengers. This way, they were able to thwart pickpocketing and illegal gambling, and even a large counterfeit bus pass ring.

Graffiti and vandalism posed a big challenge for RTD during the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1989, the transit police created an entire task force –– the Graffiti Habitual Offender Suppression Team (GHOST) –– to address the escalating severity of vandalism on the system. Buses were ideal targets for taggers because they became, in Papa’s words, “rolling billboards” for their tags. The year before the pilot program began, RTD had spent $13M on graffiti abatement. The transit police department was initially ridiculed by other police agencies for staffing a misdemeanor task force; that is, until freeway signs and overpasses became tattooed with graffiti. The RTD (and later MTA) transit police department ended up becoming the model for graffiti suppression emulated by other law enforcement agencies, including the statewide California Highway Patrol.

While the transit police proved to be very effective under Papa’s leadership –– she made a point to recruit officers who had the flexibility and people skills needed to succeed on a transit system –– her department struggled against the perception among other law enforcement agencies that they were a “second-rate” police force. Part of this was due to the fact that many of the issues that they addressed weren’t felonies but what we would today call violations of the Code of Conduct, i.e. people eating, drinking, smoking, and intimidating riders by playing loud music on the system. “In law enforcement, most police officers like to focus on the major felonies; they want to take the big gangsters to jail, so to speak,” Papa said in a 1992 interview. “Here we focus on quality-of-life issues.” Minor offenses like graffiti and smoking might not grab all the headlines, but they made up the vast majority of transit crimes, negatively impacted everyone on the bus, and factored heavily into decisions to ride.

Sharon Papa became RTD’s police chief in 1989. Here she is as a sergeant in 1984

–––

If you’ve read this far, you might be asking yourself: “If the transit police force accomplished so much, why did they disappear?” I don’t want to overstate their successes –– the transit police never had a smooth ride, and they faced scandals and bad publicity like many other law enforcement departments. Papa’s predecessor had left the agency after being accused of nepotism and ticket fixing. A few incidents of officer misconduct had brought negative attention to the transit police. Several ex-officers accused the agency of tolerating cronyism and brutality, racial profiling, responding slowly to crimes, and failing to adequately screen recruits. “The RTD police is to law enforcement what the appendix is to the human body –– useless,” one former officer told the Los Angeles Times in 1991.

Did these incidents cause the RTD police force’s demise? Not really. Was there a huge surge of crime that suddenly undermined confidence in the transit police? Nope. Nor did the merger between RTD and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) –– creating our present-day Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) –– explain its downfall. Rather, the end of the in-house transit police force was closely tied to the reintroduction of rail to Los Angeles for the first time in 30 years –– an ambitious and historic plan that created unprecedented excitement … and uncertainty. Security would be paramount. Rail’s success, officials believed, had everything to do with how safe riders felt on the trains. Moreover, there was suddenly money on the table for law enforcement. The passage of Proposition C by LA County voters –– the half cent sales tax passed in 1990 –– carved out 5% for rail and bus security. For the first time, transit police would have a dedicated funding stream.

As the $877M Blue Line (now the A Line) neared completion, the question of who would police it became the subject of passionate debate. The 22-mile light rail line that connected Downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach passed through some high crime areas known as gang turf. And the transit police were severely understaffed. Could they really take this on? Leaders were divided. LACTC –– the agency that oversaw public transit and highway policy, which had actually built the Blue Line –– wanted the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to police it. In survey after survey, LACTC officials found that “fear of crime” would prevent substantial numbers of people from riding. LACTC had been feuding with RTD for years; it wasn’t surprising that the rival agencies would clash over transit security, too. In early 1990, an RTD board vote awarded the Blue Line policing contract to the in-house transit police, but, under intense pressure from LACTC, the mayor’s office, and the board of county supervisors, the RTD board reversed its decision and awarded the contract to LASD at a cost of $12 million … double the cost of Papa’s bid. Her RTD police force was suddenly tasked with policing only buses for the next two years.

A transit police officer helping out in Pershing Square, c. 1990s

The battle over the contract to police the Red Line became even more vehement. Even though the Blue Line was much longer than the Red Line (which was only 4.4 miles at this time, extending from Union Station to Westlake / MacArthur Park), the Blue Line was a light rail system –– newspapers still called it a “trolley.” As it traveled (mostly) at grade, it seemed airier and safer. The Red Line, by contrast, was a bona fide subway. Getting Angelenos to ditch their cars and travel underground would hinge on having top-notch security. The LAPD’s bid pledged to put 56 officers on the system at a cost of $6M –– $4M more than the plan proposed by the in-house transit police. The in-house transit police ultimately prevailed –– partly due to the fact that vast funding discrepancies between policing on rail ($1.25 per rider) and on buses (3 cents per rider) had come to light, and the LAPD’s bid would make the gap even more egregious.

Despite this victory, the seeds of the transit police’s destruction had already been planted. The fact that high-ranking officials publicly doubted Metro’s ability to police its own rail lines was a huge blow to public perceptions of competency. Papa changed some of her tactics –– putting undercover officers in uniforms, for example, so her police force would be recognized by the public for the work they did. “Seeing is believing,” she frequently told journalists. But she couldn’t protect the police force from politics. When Richard Riordan was elected mayor in 1993, earning him a seat on the MTA board and the ability to choose three board members, he proposed to merge the transit police with the LAPD and LASD.

Why? Riordan’s campaign had centered on a promise to hire 1000 LAPD officers if elected. It soon became apparent, however, that he lacked the budget to do so. If the LAPD absorbed MTA’s existing transit police force, however, the LAPD could gain hundreds of new officers to add to the force … and they wouldn’t have to pick up the tab. For Riordan, it seemed like a massive cost-saving measure. “One city, one police department” became the new battle cry. Sensing a shift in the winds, the LASD and LAPD submitted a plan to take over policing MTA’s entire transit system in December 1993, proposing to “merge” the transit police with their departments. This sparked several years of debate about who was best equipped to police the transit system.

Supporters of the merger argued that:

  • It would eliminate duplicate administrative units at MTA, saving money.
  • It would reduce the unit cost of the MTA’s law enforcement and security program ($75,000 per FTE for the partnership compared to $82,000 per FTE for the MTA Transit Police).
  • The LAPD and LASD could utilize a range of law enforcement services, including calling on special weapons and tactics units and helicopter response teams.
  • It would put more officers on the street who could respond to any call, not just transit crimes, since transit crimes often spilled on or off of transit.
  • Many people believed that the LAPD and LASD had more rigorous policing protocols.

Detractors of the merger argued:

  • MTA would lose the ability to control costs, hire and train personnel, and develop and implement their own policies and procedures.
  • MTA wouldn’t have any say over redeploying resources or addressing emerging crime issues.
  • It could potentially reduce the number of sworn officers patrolling the system
  • MTA would no longer have a police force with in-house expertise and dedication to working on the transit system.

In 1996, the Metro Board of Directors finally voted to merge the transit police department with LAPD and LASD. In November 1997, the first half of the transit police broke away to LASD, followed by the second half merging with the LAPD. The LAPD was given the contract to patrol the Red (B) Line and buses in LA city limits. The LASD would patrol the Blue (A) and Green (C) Lines and buses outside the city. The transition plan called for members of the transit police to be laterally transferred to LAPD or LASD, although many –– up to 24% according to one article in the Los Angeles Times –– didn’t pass the background checks to move into the LAPD. Papa applied for transfer to the LAPD as well, although her status as the highest female ranking officer became a matter of controversy within the LAPD. She eventually entered the LAPD as a commander, although she was promoted to assistant deputy chief within a few years, making her the highest-ranking female officer in LAPD history at that point. She worked for the LAPD for 17 years.

Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times published November 21, 1997

–––

Today, we face different issues than we faced during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1997, we didn’t even have a system for counting homeless in LA County. In 2023, there were 75,518. In 1997, hardly anyone had heard of fentanyl. Today, we’re facing the largest opioid epidemic we’ve ever faced in our history. In 1997, we had three rail lines that covered 46.3 miles. Today, we have six rail lines that cover 109 miles.

And yet, many of the issues we face are more similar than they seem. We are still working hard to protect our bus operators from senseless assaults. We’re still dealing with the same “quality of life” issues on our buses and trains (smoking, drinking, loud music, litter, etc.) that compromise our riders’ experience. As our system continues to expand, our contracted law enforcement still struggles to police a 1,447-mile service area that spans multiple jurisdictions, and the costs go up every year. And, as our Metro Ambassadors have shown us, we’re learning that there’s a lot of value in having an intimate knowledge of the transit system and its customers, just like the old champions of RTD’s transit police.

I’ve never been one to rehash clichéd warnings about repeating the mistakes of the past. History is about chance and timing more than hard and fast rules –– events rarely boil down to one ‘cause’ and ‘effect,’ let alone tidy explanations. And yet, I feel that taking stock of the rise and the fall of the RTD/MTA police department matters as we consider starting a police force of our own today. There are too many parallels to brush them aside. There were too many concerns –– about rising costs, lack of oversight, and inconsistent enforcement –– that not only turned out to be spot on, but remain major challenges for us today.   Wherever we stand on policing today, we owe it to ourselves to understand why our transit police force appeared, evolved, and declined in the way that it did, and what factors shaped its trajectory. The challenges we face today are unique, but added context can inform our choices.

Next, I’ll explain how policing on our system has changed since we decided to merge our transit police department with LAPD and LASD, and what kinds of procedural, operational, and financial challenges we’ve faced. I’ll also describe the proposed implementation plan that Metro staff is proposing in more detail. Stay tuned! Questions? Comment? Let us know below.

Categories: Transportation News

9 replies

  1. I was proud and honored to start my police career with the SCRTDPD

  2. Well-researched and very good article — like the above folks, I enjoyed reading this, Thank you…

  3. Two or three departments was a logistical nightmare where the LAPD would cease pursuing buses that left their jurisdiction and the Sheriff’s would do the same when the bus entered into The City of Los Angeles. At one time the LASO had the entire contract which solved these jurisdictional problems. The Transit Police were seen as “keystone cops”by many departments. They often made fools of themselves while responding to calls and making arrests. The original officers hired from other departments were professional while those from Rio Hondo College just were not as competent. These were not the “cream of the crop” entering law enforcement, they were the rejects in many cases that no other agency would hire. If the MTA creates a new department one of the criteria should be they attend either the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Academy or the LAPD Academy. Anything less will result in the same substandard force they had before. The MTA Police should be an agency other departments seek to hire their officers from not one where the MTA Police are the last resort for those wanting to be police officers.

    • No one wants to be a transit cop. LAPD is having trouble hiring, which means this transit force will have next to no one.