The competition is on for policing new BART stations, including San Jose
Image credit: BART

As Bay Area mass transit services struggle to protect public safety, Silicon Valley law enforcement agencies are competing for a chance to police the new Valley Transportation Authority transit centers in Milpitas and San Jose when BART trains start rolling into Santa Clara County for the first time in 2020.

An Alameda County Grand Jury Report released this summer found violent crime on BART more than doubled in the five-year period ending in 2018 — driven by robberies and aggravated assaults — and reported criminal activity has skyrocketed 115% since 2014. A grisly, fatal, daytime stabbing on a moving BART train between the San Leandro and South Hayward stations the week before Thanksgiving brought the issue of safety on public transit back into the spotlight in the East Bay.

Meanwhile in Silicon Valley, VTA has also had fatal violence — a knife-wielding man was shot and killed by a private security guard at the Santa Teresa light-rail station in San Jose the night before Halloween, raising questions about who should be responsible for public safety in the region’s transit network.

“VTA currently contracts with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department for Transit Patrol,” said authority spokeswoman Bernice Alaniz.

But that contract expires at the end of the year, and the VTA board of directors is expected to extend it through March 2020. After that, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, whose city controls five of the board’s 12 seats — says he wants the city police department to take responsibility for public safety at the Berryessa station.

If San Jose police or another law enforcement agency take over policing duties at the Santa Clara County stations — including adding private security to supplement sheriff’s deputies — it would be a first for BART. For all the 48 stations currently in service, BART police patrol the properties and do not contract with other local law enforcement agencies, said spokesman Jim Allison.

“We have some strong views about this because the police are already responsible for the surrounding neighborhood,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight in an interview. “And literally the streets that go through the BART station — that’s a city responsibility, so it becomes silly at some point and you wind up with a Keystone Kops situation.”

The existing arrangement with the Sheriff’s Department makes sense, VTA officials say, because the authority’s facilities are spread out all over the county.

“Ultimately, with countywide jurisdiction, the sheriff’s sworn officers who conduct transit patrol under this contract supplement the primary law enforcement of the 15 local municipal jurisdictions within Santa Clara County, where VTA operates,” said Angelique Gaeta, the agency’s chief of system safety and security.

But Liccardo sees it differently.

“It’s really important for us to have clear accountability about who is responsible for safety in this area,” the mayor argued. “And we want it to be one agency and we want that agency to be SJPD.”

The San Jose Police Department submitted a proposal to the VTA’s directors for the new Berryessa station, and likewise the Milpitas Police Department put in a bid for the new station in its jurisdiction — meanwhile the county sheriff wants to extend its contract for the whole VTA system, including both unopened, long-delayed transit centers.

The question of who provides public safety services at the new Milpitas and Berryessa stations is complicated by the inclusion of BART police, which includes 170 officers within the agency.

Allison said BART police has jurisdiction inside all the stations and on BART trains, including the unopened Berryessa and Milpitas stations.

But the arrangement for policing services at the two Santa Clara County stations will be different because they’re surrounded by transit centers operated by VTA, Allison added.

In the South Bay, VTA’s contract with the Sheriff’s Department “covers the VTA system and facilities,” explained spokeswoman Bernice Alaniz, adding that Allied Universal provides 24-hour patrols at VTA rail yards and bus depots — and armed guards at stations, like the one involved in the fatal October shooting.

“BART Police will patrol everything within the BART Station area as well as on the BART system,” Alaniz said. “The entity that VTA ends up awarding the supplemental law enforcement contract to will patrol one or both of the stations.”

In 2016, in anticipation of the BART stations being completed in months, the VTA Board of Directors approved doubling the number of sheriff’s deputies assigned to transit patrol from 21 to 42.

Gaeta, the VTA’s security chief, said the presence of sheriff’s deputies at the stations help prevent petty crimes like vandalism and fare evasion, as well as serious delones such as arson and sexual assault.

Gaeta is recommending the board extend the sheriff’s contract until March 2020 — to the tune of $4.2 million.

Alaniz said the authority could not answer questions about the proposals it received from the three law enforcement agencies vying for the public safety contracts, citing its “competitive” and “confidential” procurement process.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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