Bay Area Rapid Transit officials Thursday formalized a permanent program for 10 unarmed ambassadors to roam trains and stations to address rider safety concerns.

The 10 ambassadors will be joined by 10 crisis intervention specialists and one community outreach specialist who will respond to mental health calls, those suffering from drug issues and homeless individuals.

BART budget staff said it will annually cost $1.3 million for the ambassadors and another $1.5 million for the specialists, with an additional $300,000 for specialist training.

Directors voted 7-2 to make the ambassador program permanent — with Debora Allen and Liz Ames dissented.

The program was launched as a pilot in February and operated until August. Directors in favor of the permanence cited data collected on contacts made during the six-month pilot period.

In that time, officials said ambassadors conducted over 5,700 platform checks, 7,300 education checks, responded to over 6,700 passengers who contacted them and reported 66 incidents that required police response.

Director Janice Li said:

“It’s clear that the data shows that this program has been successful, and that there is consensus among staff that this program has had a positive impact.”

Li added that ambassadors are not replacing police officers, but compliment them in an effort to keep passengers safe.

Allen asked BART Deputy Police Chief Angela Averiett whether officers will still respond to calls for drug use, homelessness and mental health issues.

Averiett quickly responded by saying that it is not illegal to be homeless, but added that uniformed police officers would accompany crisis intervention specialists as they attempt to provide resources for the individual.

Maria J. Avila/BART First BART Ambassador Program training conducted by Armando Sandoval, at BART Police Headquarters in Oakland, February 6, 2020.

She said officers’ roles in those situations will be ensuring safety for all involved, not enforcement. Allen criticized the program, pointing out that police response is still often needed to address safety issues on the transit system.

Allen also questioned the additional budget approval for crisis intervention specialists, saying: 

“I certainly didn’t realize that in June, when we passed our budget, that funding for this new classification of person that hadn’t even really been discussed yet, that that was what we were funding.”

Director Ames voiced preference for more outreach to better understand the public’s stance on a permanent program.

Transit officials Thursday also addressed BART’s financial situation, which reflects a $33 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year.

Staff was directed to identify cost-saving measures in a seven-point plan, which includes the continuation of a hiring freeze, improving contract processing efficiency and offering employees early retirement incentives.

Staff presented directors with contingency plans in case the agency is unable to close the budget gap and additional federal assistance is not received. Those plans include service cuts, which could eliminate weekend service in the worst case scenario. 

Directors will need to decide and take action by December for service changes that would be effective in February.

Jerold Chinn
Jerold Chinn is the San Francisco Bureau Chief of SFBay. A San Francisco native, he has spent a decade covering transportation in San Francisco. Send tips to jerold@sfbay.ca or at Twitter @Jerold_Chinn.

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