Story by Maximo Gonzalez. Photos and some reporting by Michael Lozano
LONG BEACH, Calif. — Christina Huerta waits with her two toddlers at the Metro Blue Line’s Anaheim stop on a warm day, and whether she knows it or not, the 32-year-old is about to board the most violent train in Los Angeles County.
“I have never had any problems on any of the other lines, like the Red or the Gold, like I do here,” says Huerta. “So it doesn’t surprise me that they are stepping up security, especially here on the Blue.”
Metro moved to beef up security this summer, hoping to curb response times by replacing L.A. county sheriff deputies with Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) officers within the city’s borders.
Metro board members, which include Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, unanimously approved the move in February.
According to a survey released by Metro in 2016, the Blue Line had the highest rate of violent crime in the rail system. The line, stretching from downtown Long Beach to downtown L.A., carries nearly 75,000 passengers every day.
Violent crime across the rail lines has also continued to increase as ridership continues to drop, Metro reported. A Metro survey found nearly 30 percent of riders abandoned its use because they felt unsafe during their commute, a finding which prompted their board of directors to change paths.
Huerta’s experience with the Blue Line shows why riders might be hesitant to return.
“[Some riders] smoke weed right next to kids and don’t even care,” Huerta says. “No one tells them anything because they don’t want any trouble.”
Now with two children, Huerta adds that she’s no longer a daily rider. A number of others share similar stories, like 20-year-old Cecily Sanchez, who says that conflict on the train has become somewhat of a normal occurrence.
“Honestly, from a safety standpoint, it’s just terrible. There is constant drama on the train. For me, I see it almost every day,” Sanchez says. “And usually it drags on because there is never anyone around with some kind of authority to break things up.”
In fact, passengers cite nonpresent security as one of the main factors for why they feel unsafe. An elderly Long Beach woman sued Metro in December after she was allegedly told racial slurs and assaulted, saying that Metro failed to prevent the incident.
Current response times by the county sheriff’s department are reportedly about 16 minutes, giving those causing trouble more than enough time to move to another car or simply exit the train.
However, with the new security plan in place, Metro estimates the LBPD will cut response times to about five minutes.
Speaking with riders, you’d find that the the lack of security presence does enable some to act freely. On the train, a man in his late-20s, wishing to remain anonymous, discusses some of the things he has been able to get away with over the years.
“There is never any security around… I don’t even gotta’ pay to ride sometimes if my spot’s close,” he says as he fiddles around with a Swisher Sweet, a type of cigar often used to smoke marijuana. “I could roll up and smoke on the train right now if I wanted to and not have any problems.”
Some residents, including alternative and major media sites, have questioned whether more law enforcement might be the answer to the Blue Line’s safety problem.
Long Beach will receive about $30 million over five years to hire about 30 more police staff, according to a statement by Mayor Garcia.
For Black Lives Matter-Long Beach organizer Michael Brown, more police means “more arbitrary stops, more confrontations. You know what happens,” he says.
Brown points to a current U.S. Department of Transportation civil rights investigation into alleged racial profiling of African-American riders by Metro and the county sheriff’s department.
Initiating the case was a November lawsuit filed by the Bus Riders’ Union, which found in a survey that African-Americans represented 19 percent of all riders but made up about 50 percent of those cited for fare evasions.
Brown suggests the same alleged habit will be adopted by the LBPD given Metro’s “vague” Code of Conduct against solicitation, “raucous, offensive behavior” and “seat hogging.”
“Language around cops being able to stop people for things like disorderly conduct? What does that mean?” Brown asks. “Does that mean talking too loud, playing music too loud? That’s a lot of leeway.”
Riders can expect to see more officers on all Metro lines starting July 1. LBPD officers will be patrolling the eight stations within its city boundaries, a LBPD spokesperson said, adding that officers assigned to the Blue Line will not be performing patrols elsewhere in the city.