The BART Board of Directors is inching closer to approving a program that's been in the works nearly two years in which unarmed "ambassadors" will roam trains cleaning up needles and other "biohazards" and providing outreach to the homeless.
BART board member and former SF supervisor Bevan Dufty has championed the program since 2018 with a view toward increasing an authoritative presence on trains without necessarily increasing the presence of BART police, who bring with them a certain amount of controversy and bad PR. As Dufty told the Chronicle last fall, "I think that everybody recognizes that just having eyes on the system discourages negative behavior. I believe that shows some integrity in our system, that we have people out here so that riders don’t feel like they’re kind of going it alone."
The board will vote Thursday on launching a six-month pilot ambassador program with a price tag of $690,000. As the Examiner reports, it will involve sending ten ambassadors in teams of two out on trains to scout for "inappropriate behavior," aggressive panhandling, general rudeness, and messes that need cleaning up — including everything from trash on platforms to discarded hypodermic needles and human waste on trains. If approved, the ambassadors may begin roaming trains as soon as February 10, wearing BART t-shirts that say "Ambassador" across the back.
BART's new General Manager Bob Powers has been on a "listening tour" since October, talking to riders on their daily commutes and getting a sense for what the most common complaints are. This effort has apparently moved the ambassador program up the list of priorities, according to the Examiner, after former GM Grace Crunican was more hesitant about the program's effectiveness. One main concern is the safety of the ambassadors themselves — they will be unsworn, civilian employees of the BART Police Department, but they will be unarmed.
Another event that brought the program back to the table: the fatal stabbing on a BART train in Hayward in November. Several directors see ambassadors as being able to potentially de-escalate situations like that one — in which an unarmed, shoeless, mentally ill man boarded a train and began trying to steal a homeless man's shoes, which escalated into a fight with a Good Samaritan who ended up fatally stabbed with his own knife.
BART directors from San Francisco Janice Li and Dufty spent some of last year shadowing ambassadors in a similar program on Muni buses — though those ambassadors were specifically stationed on bus lines near schools in order to defer fights from breaking out. As Li told a community meeting last year, school bullying issues reportedly "significantly declined" after the program began.
One sticking point in the establishment of the program was that some BART board members previously were pushing to hire formerly incarcerated people to the jobs through nonprofits like Urban Alchemy. Per the Examiner, BART police firmly rejected this idea, but they are in support of using vetted department staff instead.
Not all BART board members are on board with the idea of unarmed ambassadors, however. Contra Costa County-based director Debora Allen was outspoken in her criticism of the proposed program in the wake of November's stabbing, saying it's a "toothless" effort "to dupe riders into believing BART is providing for their safety." Further, she blames BART's ills on "the political will of most of the directors [that] is against enforcing low-level infractions and rule violations because of social equity concerns."
In addition to the money for the ambassador program, the BART board will vote Thursday on a whole quality-of-life package that also includes $810,000 for "new fare areas" at the Coliseum BART station — which has been the location of many crime reports in recent years, as well as this recently documented instance of mass fare evasion by teens.
Also, fun fact: The BART Police Department only currently has one person on staff with a social work background, Armando Sandoval, who is designated for homeless outreach.