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Villanueva threatens to remove deputies from subway security

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva threatened Wednesday that his department would stop patrolling the Metro transit system unless the agency’s board gave him full control of security on the sprawling network of trains and buses.

Villanueva made the request because the current contract — under which the sheriff’s department shares law enforcement responsibilities with the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments — is due to expire this summer. The LAPD patrols the majority of the transit system, 325 sheriff’s deputies are responsible for about a third of it, and the Long Beach police manage a tiny fraction.

“So from July 1 we are going to redeploy, in the absence of a position from the board of directors that they are going to accept our entire contract,” Villanueva said, adding that there are vacancies across the department where he could reassign deputies. “I have three jobs pending for each person assigned to the MTA at this time.”

Villanueva and other sheriff’s officials said the sheriff’s department would submit a proposal to Metro for about 600 deputies to patrol the transit system for $30 million a year less than they currently pay for the same level of staff. Metro’s board paid approximately $800 million for the current 5-year contract.

How Villanueva would be able to do this without severely depleting other areas of his department is unclear. The sheriff blamed a hiring freeze imposed by the board of supervisors for leaving him with nearly 1,000 vacancies in his department.

In a statement, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, who is also chairwoman of the Metro Board of Directors and an outspoken critic of Villanueva, said the division of patrol responsibilities between three police departments was intended to “improve law enforcement response”.

“The sheriff’s statement to remove his deputies if the department doesn’t get the full contract with Metro should alarm everyone,” she said. “He would essentially cut funding for his own department if he didn’t get a single contract.”

Metro’s board of directors recently authorized the contract extension of three agencies for up to one year to allow time to develop a new process for selecting one or more agencies to manage security. It’s unclear whether the sheriff’s department might decline to participate in an extension.

Villanueva said he did not consult with LAPD Chief Michel Moore before his press conference. Moore told The Times that the current system of shared responsibility “has improved safety.”

“All of us in law enforcement have a shared responsibility for public safety and public transit, and we can and should work collaboratively,” he said.

Moore defended his officers’ work in protecting transit following the sheriff’s statements. “The men and women of the LAPD watch trains, platforms and buses diligently every day, 24 hours a day,” he said.

In making her announcement, Villanueva pointed to several violent incidents at transit stations since September 2020, when two MPs were shot in an ambush while sitting in a patrol car near Compton station.

Violent crime in the system soared 36% last year, with aggravated assaults, rapes and homicides rising for the second year in a row, according to Metro data.

“To say that [is an] dangerous environment is obviously an understatement,” Villanueva said.

The subway board has been discussing alternatives to law enforcement for the transit system for years, including considering unarmed ambassadors to work at stations and handle nonviolent calls. The council also recently voted to require all deputies and officers assigned to the transit system to be vaccinated — a blow to Villanueva who refused to enforce the vaccination mandate for county employees.

Villanueva criticized the ambassador proposal and other reform initiatives.

“We’re not going to bid for the role of being an overpaid security,” Villanueva said. “We’re actually going to enforce the code of conduct, fare evasion and rule of law.”

For more than a decade until 2017, the Sheriff’s Department was solely responsible for patrolling Metro’s vast network of bus and train routes, which includes subway stations in downtown Los Angeles and lonely bus stops near shopping malls in the San Gabriel Valley.

When the subway board opted to call in the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments, the sheriff’s department came under fire from transit officials and passengers who complained they rarely see deputies in uniform on trains and buses. Villanueva claimed on Wednesday without providing evidence that the change was a politically motivated move intended to benefit Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was up for re-election at the time.

Villanueva has already threatened to cut services. In 2020, he announced plans to close two patrol stations to help reduce his department’s budget deficit. Amid criticism, he quickly backtracked and the closures never happened.

Los Angeles Times

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