L.A. Metro Crime Statistics Are an Absolute Horrorshow

Cityside Column: It’s a public safety nightmare as the mega-billion dollar transit system experiences rising deaths and assaults on buses and trains

I’m not a fan of the horror genre. I haven’t read a Stephen King book since I was a teenager and I didn’t purchase a ticket to Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey. And yet, I recently watched one of the scariest videos I have ever seen: The Metro Board of Directors’ one-hour-plus discussion of public safety on local buses and trains. Or, maybe I should say, the lack of public safety, as the death toll is rising quickly. 


On Feb. 23, Metro Chief Safety Officer Gina Osborn trotted out frightening stat after frightening stat. There’s a nine-page report, so go ahead and see for yourself. The horrorshow starts with what transpired in 2022, when there were 162 reports of assault against Metro operators (i.e. bus and train drivers). That’s one nearly every other day, and imagine the gloom permeating each operator locker room, with drivers likely worried if each day is the one when they become a grisly statistic.

Then there are Part 1 crimes, which are considered the most serious offenses, and include assault and robbery. They were 24% higher across the transit system in 2022 compared with 2021. Metro’s data sheet reveals 1,435 such incidents in 2022.

Then there’s the transit system suddenly morphing into something resembling a rolling morgue. According to Osborn, there have been 21 deaths system-wide this year. It’s already the same number of deaths tabulated in the entirety of 2022. In 2021 there were 25 fatalities system-wide (the Metro report cites data from the L.A. County Coroner-Medical Examiner).

Look back further and the 2023 figures get even worse. There were five deaths on the system in 2019, and seven the previous year.

Things are at the point that Metro labeled January “De-Escalation Month,” and the safety report explains how the agency sought to give all workers “an organized way of making decisions about how employees will act in the face of conflict.” That’s fine in concept, but bus operators and maintenance staff should be able to focus on driving and fixing stuff, not how to navigate a tense situation with law-breaking and potentially high riders. If staff need widespread de-escalation training, something is seriously wrong with the workplace.

One, er…driver of the disconcerting situation is what’s slamming society at large: drug and alcohol abuse. When Mayor Karen Bass (a Metro board member) asked what illicit substances are at play, Osborn remarked, “I would say fentanyl is gonna be big out there.” The Metro report attributed 16 of the deaths in 2021, and 10 last year, to alcohol or drugs (the cause of four of the 2022 deaths is currently unknown).

These statistics made the news last week but were effectively drowned out by the torrential rains and power outages that hit L.A. hard. That’s understandable, but also striking, given the implications on the regional transportation system. An average of 777,000 people rode Metro buses and trains each weekday in January, according to agency statistics (the level was about 1.2 million daily boardings before the pandemic).

Metro board member and City Council Rep. Paul Krekorian seemed to have trouble picking his jaw up off the floor.

“I don’t think we should beat around the bush on this,” he stated at the meeting. “This is an existential threat to the Metro system.”

The safety worries are nothing new. Talk to anyone who rides Metro even occasionally and you’ll hear reports of frequent unsavory behavior, from violent assaults to someone exposing themself to the stench of urine in stations to copious drug use.

While some board members seemed shocked by the scope of the incidents, Metro’s top brass knew about the spiraling situation. The agency in October released the findings of a survey given to more than 12,000 riders. It showed that among the top five concerns was safety from crime, and female riders in particular wanted “safety from crime, sexual harassment, or racial or ethnic harassment.” That helps explain why female bus ridership fell from 53 percent in 2019 to 49 percent three years later. On the rail network, ridership among women dropped from 46 percent to 44 percent.

Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins has not soft-balled the situation. When she spoke at a luncheon in December hosted by the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, she referenced the concern among female riders and acknowledged the overall challenge.

“Safety and security is the number one focus for our system,” she said on that day.

This is appropriate but also bonkers. Metro’s raison d’etre is to get hundreds of thousands of people each day across Southern California. The primary task should be persuading Angelenos to trade their cars for mass transit, not having to worry about the proper response when a shady figure is smoking fentanyl on a train.

Like everything else in Los Angeles, the situation is complicated by the homelessness crisis, and a sizable portion of the estimated 70,000 unhoused people in the county are substance users. A number of them seek refuge on the bus and rail system, and this is part of what prompted Metro to hire hundreds of unarmed “safety ambassadors.” The hope is that these workers can help riders with directions and questions, but also serve as an alternative to gun-carrying cops and sheriff’s deputies when it comes to initial interactions with some unhoused individuals.

Of course, all this occurs as Metro has billions of dollars worth of rail lines and other projects in the works in advance of the 2028 Summer Olympics. While the train to LAX and other routes are crucial to alleviating L.A. gridlock, Krekorian pointed to the reality that if Metro is not considered safe, then few people with a different option will choose to ride.

“The chance of retaining any discretionary ridership with this state of affairs of crime and threats to public safety is zero,” he stated.

Metro is seeking to address the crisis with efforts including an anti-drug use campaign, and Osborn talked up other plans to deploy a combination of traditional law enforcement, ambassadors and agency Transit Safety Officers. Everyone seemed to be trying to walk a tightrope, acknowledging the need for urgent action, but also seeking to avoid a response that over-relies on arrests, particularly with concerns that heavy-handed law enforcement could disproportionately impact Black and Brown riders.

There will be future safety updates at board meetings, and presumably one day a grand, coordinated response, though it can’t happen soon enough. But maybe the scariest thing of all was how uncertain some of the agency overseers were.

“I just don’t know what we’re going to do when we confront these people who are using drugs on our system,” said County Supervisor and Metro board member Janice Hahn. “I realize it’s a problem. I realize it would freak me out if I was riding and God forbid there was a death as it related to an overdose. I would probably never ride the train again.”

She’s likely not the only one who feels that way.

Edito’s Note: An initial version of this story had some incorrect figures and the copy has been updated. There were 21 deaths system-wide in 2022; the number of Part 1 crimes was corrected to its 2022 total of 1,435; and a reference to the cause of four deaths being unknown was corrected to reflect that they took place in 2022. LAMag regrets the error. 

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