Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced “Operation Safe Travel” this week: his plan to remove an estimated 5,700 homeless people he said are currently living on trains and buses across Los Angeles.

In a press conference just weeks before Election Day for the June 7, primary, incumbent LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced a bold new plan for Metro security, evidently going beyond the bounds of the current LA County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) contract across transit around LA County.

The announcement came just over a month after Villanueva issued an ultimatum to cut all LASD personnel from LA Metro security assignments beginning July 1, should his department not obtain the full LA Metro security contract.

Since 2017, LASD has worked with other agencies to patrol LA Metro’s vast network, including Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) and Metro Transit Security Guards. But Villanueva said that contract has been a failure, and he believes his department can do better to serve Los Angeles’ 620,000 daily riders.

Currently, approximately 300 LASD employees, including 270 sworn officers, are assigned to work on LA Metro, but Villanueva said he would push that number up beginning June 1, for what he named “Operation Safe Travel.”

Though Villanueva referred to the plan as a “surge,” he did not share an estimate for how many personnel he expected would be dedicated toward Operation Safe Travel. Instead, he said the team would be “cobbled together,” pledging to draw from LASD resources including the HOST (Homeless Outreach Services Team), NARCO (Narcotics Bureau), SIU (Sheriffs Intelligence Unit) and COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) — as well as mounted enforcement, the aero bureau and reserve forces. 

In total, Villanueva said 16 LASD units, details, bureaus and teams would be involved in the push, which was focused on clearing homelessness from trains.

“Well, our surge right now that we’re going to focus all the resources on is getting the 5,700 [unhoused] people off the system,” Villanueva said. “I think once we have them off the system, obviously we can tone it down to meet the needs of the people that are riding that are legitimate riders of the system, but right now, the presence of that many homeless on the system — on the platforms on the trains — is our primary focus. So, we can anticipate once we have them off the system, that there’ll be a lower need for that many [officers].”

According to Villanueva, unhoused transit users — many of whom, he said, live on trains — are responsible for violence perpetrated on rail and buses. The Sheriff highlighted several recent assaults and other violent crimes, all of which he said were perpetrated by homeless people.

Prior to the current five-year contract that began in 2017, LASD was solely responsible for security on LA Metro; Villanueva would like to see that system return.

In response to the plan, LA Metro spokespeople provided the following statement: “We will continue to work cooperatively with the LA Sheriff’s office as outlined in our contract extension for the next year. Safety is Metro’s No. 1 priority, and we continue to add additional programs and services to our system to address crime, cleanliness, and safety issues. As the year proceeds, Metro will evaluate all of our options to identify the most effective path forward to create the safest and most comfortable environment possible for our customers and employees.” 

Villanueva’s announcement came just days before Metro announced a new agreement with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (DMH) to make trained mental health professionals available to respond to mental health crises on the public transit system.

“Anyone who has taken Metro knows there is a mental health crisis on our transit system,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, who authored the October 2021 motion to initiate talks between the Department of Mental Health and Metro.  “With this new agreement, our Department of Mental Health will place teams of trained mental health professionals on our buses and trains so that they can respond to people in crisis, de-escalate potentially dangerous situations, and connect people with the long-term treatment and support they need.”

Under the agreement, DMH will pilot up to 10 mobile crisis outreach teams that will operate during Metro hours, seven days a week, to de-escalate situations and provide linkages to appropriate follow-up services including possible 5150 or 5585 involuntary psychiatric evaluation and/or provision of transport to appropriate facility-based care, when needed. DMH will also provide Community Ambassador Network teams to provide outreach and linkages to services to individuals experiencing mental illness within designated areas of the metro system. Finally, DMH will provide 30 Metro Transit Security and contract security personnel with intervention training to include basic awareness of mental health conditions and de-escalation skills and behaviors for managing a mental health incident.

During his announcement, Villanueva said he was not sure whether Operation Safe Travel would have an impact on the July contract — but one statement seemed to imply he would be open to retaining the current contract size, contrary to his April statements.

“It doesn’t matter if we get the same chunk [of territory] that we have now or we get the entire system,” Villanueva said. “What matters is that law enforcement has to resume control over safety on this system, not being a second choice after private security does their business because they’re not — it is not working.”

emily@smdp.com