Wikimedia Commons photo by Tim McAteer
The police officers entrusted with protecting the Bay Area Rapid Transit system are sometimes derided as little more than mall security.
Critics have repeatedly called to disarm the transit system's department, as the murder trial of former BART officer Johannes Mehserle has transfixed the Bay Area’s attention on how police use lethal force.
If BART police surrender their pistols, must the members of its Special Weapons and Tactics unit (better known as a “SWAT” team) turn over their submachine guns and assault rifles?
The disarmament campaign has focused on pistols – the weapon Mehserle used to shoot Oscar Grant on New Years Day 2009.
Willie Brown, former San Francisco mayor and state lawmaker, recently joined the chorus asking BART to strip its police of sidearms. In a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Brown wrote:
“It's not like they are real police officers out on patrol. They are transit cops. They aren't going to be in a shootout with anybody. Not on a BART platform, or in a parking lot or in a BART car. Too many people could get hurt if there was a real shootout.”
Not so, says BART Police Patrol Commander Daniel Hartwig. The transit agency uses its SWAT team, equipped with long guns, multiple times a year in response to life-threatening emergencies.
In 2010, the tactical operations team has gone into action on at least three incidents, Hartwig said. And on one occasion SWAT officers raided two residences outside the transit system in search of suspects in an incident that originated at the Pittsburg/Bay Point station.
BART officers await approval from city police departments before conducting a raid in someone else’s jurisdiction.
“I can’t just go into the city of Pittsburgh, the city of Oakland, the city of San Francisco with my SWAT team and do whatever I want,” Hartwig said.
BART police are certified peace officers with the same authority as their colleagues working the streets of Oakland, Los Angeles, Sacramento and every other California municipality.
Other transit systems have their own stand-alone police, including the metro rail in Washington, D.C., which now boasts an “anti-terrorism” unit. New York Transit, however, is guarded by a special bureau of the New York Police Department.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency pumps hundreds of millions of dollars a year into transit systems in an effort to strengthen the security of public transportation. This fiscal year, the Bay Area’s transit systems – BART and 11 local carriers – are eligible for $19.8 million, behind only New York ($110 million), Boston ($21 million) and the nation’s capital ($29 million).