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Why We Can’t End Violence on Transit With More Police

Are more cops the answer to violence against transit workers, or is it only driving societal tensions that make attacks more frequent?

Across the country, cities and transit agencies are taking steps to address violence on their systems — particularly against the people who work to keep our buses and trains clean and safe for everyone. But what are the root causes of that violence — and are strategies like deploying armed police actually addressing them? 

On today's episode of The Brake podcast, we speak to Urban Institute Senior Research Associate Lindiwe Rennert about her research into how violence against transit workers correlates with larger problems like police brutality and income inequality — and what that means for transit advocates who want to keep people safe on board. 

Listen in below, on Apple, Spotify, or anywhere else you get your podcast, and check out our earlier coverage of Rennert's work here.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity and length.

Streetsblog: Why do you think that transit workers specifically are the target of what sounds like our collective rage about big systemic failures — especially considering that bus drivers and folks who clean stations and take our tickets did not create those systems?

Rennert: In part, we are products of our environment. And our environment is not just limited to transit spaces, right? Our home environments, our non-traveling, non-commute environments — they travel with us. We carry those impacts. And so though transit drivers are not the perpetrators of things like income inequality, or satisfaction with our elected officials, they are accessible to us. And so when those frustrations boil over, when these kinds of societal tensions reach a breaking point of desperation resulting in violence, the few public spaces we find ourselves in — as well as the few public representatives we have access to — exist in the form of transit workers. I mean, I can't tell you the last time I had direct access to my city councilor, for example. But I can certainly tell you the last time I had a face to face conversation with my bus driver.

Streetsblog: Let me ask two related questions: what should we do about this, and what are we doing about this? You mentioned in our pre-interview that quite a bit of action has been taken since you conducted this research. But that much of it has been "very concerning." I'd love to hear more about what you mean by that, and what you think a better approach would be.

Rennert: Some of what's been done in response to this in the last six months has made a big-time headlines.

So, for many folks listening to this, the National Guard being called into the New York subway will come to top of mind as a highly visible and heavy-handed response. Others responses by agencies have been less focused on law enforcement personnel; we've seen a lot of increase in surveillance in the form of cameras, which is kind of real time tracking of behavior. But it's also kind of reactive; when something happens, there is footage of it to shape that story, but as you can imagine, that hardly gets at the cause of an incident. It's very much on the tail end.

Other things we're seeing, for example: the MBTA [in Boston] has launched a new "see something/say something" app, which on the surface might sound to some very retroactive — like it may be too late, or that may not do much to decrease assaults. However, what we should be thinking about with things like a "see something/say something" app is their impact on kind of establishing a different ethos in the space, right? Like, "You are your brother's keeper"; "I, a member of the public transit riding public, can see something that I feel uncomfortable about, report it and expect that that report is taken seriously."

Other efforts include places like SEPTA in Philly, TriMet in Portland, Bart, to an extent certainly LA Metro are increasing the presence of unarmed, non-law enforcement transit ambassadors. So those would be employees whose role is to be seen, certainly to establish a presence, but also as a kind of conflict mediator. A lot of them are trained in de-escalation tactics for when these moments arise.

You know, there's there's different levels of [impact] we would expect to come from these choices. But I think we should start with the National Guard at the extreme end; the increase in the presence of law enforcement and transit cops is the maybe biggest red flag, or [at least] the largest disconnect. ... We would not expect [that] to improve the root causes of violence in any way, shape, or form.

Criminologists, as well as folks who just study transit and behavior in public space, have identified that bringing in law enforcement may decrease instances of violence in the short run, and [the effect is] highly concentrated to the spots in which they are located. And that what you would expect is very soon after the presence is removed, or relocated, violence and crime in that space surges right back up. That is what research upon research, years upon years, have shown us.

And so [more transit police is] very much a Band-Aid. But the more concerning side of that is that while we might expect assaults on transit workers to decrease in the spaces in which law enforcement is increasingly present, I would also expect instances of violence from law enforcement on members of the public to increase — specifically members of the public who are of color. So this is one of these choices where you're saying one group of people in a space matter more than another group. And we have seen too much evidence in support of that highly racialized, highly disproportionate, highly mismatched reality of the increased presence of law enforcement in transit spaces.

Streetsblog: I hate to be the Devil's advocate, but I'm curious to hear how you navigate it. I think some people are probably listening to this and thinking, "Well, I hear all this. It makes sense. But I'm a transit advocate; I'm an urbanist. Why should people who are advocating for safer transit, better transit, more transit be held responsible for solving things as a massive and complicated as income inequality?"

Rennert: I can understand the undertone of that, which is feeling overwhelmed — feeling like the problem is too large to tackle. And so then we hyper compartmentalize to try and be effective in a smaller domain.

To that, I would say several things. Firstly, let's say if you are a transit advocate, not all of the work, or the impact you have in this space comes in the form of your advocacy. You're also a member of the public — a voting member of the public, and who you vote for is really who's pulling a lot of these strings, certainly, when it comes to funding of law enforcement and funding of transit cops. That's all local and state level decision making. So your vote as a member of the public counts, and you can think of that as a part of your work as a transit advocate. Or you can simply think of that as a part of your life as a civic participant.

Another piece is, if you do want to drill down and hyper focus on what you as a transit advocate may feel accountable for or that you have responsibility over, think about this issue from its funding source. So by that, I mean, the funding for transit cops largely comes from operating budgets. [And a lot of] other things come from operating budgets: our service frequency, headways, the quality of your service, that is all pulling from what, since COVID has been a suffering operating budget.

Other pieces of this puzzle that could make significant improvements to the environment in which we travel, as well as on assaults that we see within those environments, pull from capital budgets. [I'm talking about] change through design, right? I keep saying we're products of our environment, and that environment pulls from capital dollars far more so than from operating dollars. Capital budgets have seen much stronger recovery since COVID, and have far less has to do with how many trains or buses arrive per hour.

There is something to be said for transit agencies actually focusing on improving their service as much as possible and offering the best and most service they can as a means of decreasing assaults. It cuts down on the opportunity for violence, as well as frustrations in the systems when your service is of a high quality. ... So I cannot stress enough how directly an increase in transit cops equals a decrease in frequency of service.

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