On a Saturday morning in August, a 23-year-old San Jose State University student was attacked from behind at the Richmond Bay Area Rapid Transit station while attempting to transfer trains to go home for the weekend. He was treated for broken teeth, possibly a broken jaw, and a concussion, according to ABC7News.
And just the night before the apparently random attack in Richmond, two men were stabbed with a box cutter at the MacArthur BART station, only a few stops away from Richmond.
In response to the violence, BART General Manager Grace Crunican proposed a new safety plan in August. But the plan, which includes upgraded camera surveillance, has proven controversial, raising privacy concerns alongside the existing public safety issue. This led the BART Board of Directors to adopt a new ordinance that requires a board vote before surveillance cameras can be installed.
The plan put forward by the general manager aimed to improve safety for passengers by increasing police presence, installing emergency call boxes and upgrading digital surveillance cameras, according to BART spokesperson Chris Filippi.
But not everybody likes to be under surveillance. After it was revealed BART staff continued to transmit photos of vehicle license plates from the MacArthur parking garage to a database that’s accessible to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency—even after the board had banned the action—privacy groups raised concerns about digital surveillance cameras and asked who would have access to view the visual information.
As a result of the privacy groups’ push, last Thursday the BART board adopted a new ordinance that requires public debates and board approval before buying and installing new cameras in the transit system.
“Any type of surveillance policy or any type of data sharing will have to come before the board and get a public hearing,” said Filippi, “We heard loud and clear from privacy advocates that they are concerned about this. They want to make sure that the privacy rights of BART riders are protected, and that’s something our board is prioritizing.”
If the board adopts the proposed safety plan, it could cost $15 million and take about four years to fully upgrade the surveillance cameras, according to Filippi. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently issued a $6.8 million grant to help BART address safety concerns.
When interviewed at the Richmond BART station, many riders were more concerned about safety than privacy. Rosemarie Vigil, a Richmond resident who rides on the rapid transit system four times a week, said more cameras would help if they were installed in the right places. She said there are important areas at the station that are blocked from view of the cameras.
For example, she said the cameras don’t capture riders as they go down the escalator.
“We really need that, even if you’re going down the escalator because someone could get you there, and it’s blocked (from view),” Vigil said, “You can’t see from the top, and you couldn’t really see from the bottom.”
Others argued that surveillance cameras are of limited value because they cannot fend off attackers.
“A camera can’t keep you safe in that exact moment when something happens. A camera is good when something happens to go and review it,” said Tiffani Sharp, a Sacramento attorney who rides BART from the Richmond station about twice a week.
What is critically needed, many riders believe, is increased policing on the train platforms. The transit system ordered its police force to work 60-hour work weeks for the three weeks after the attacks in August. And now, BART requires four employees to volunteer each week to work overtime to boost the police presence. Filippi said recruiting more police officers is also at the top of BART’s priority list.
But Sharp, the attorney who rides the subway from Richmond, said it also matters where the police patrol. She said she has seen police outside the exit of the station but not on the platform or in the parking lot, the places where she feels unsafe.
“In fact, I recently had a conversation with my friends about why the police were not on the platform, because this was where the young woman was stabbed,” Sharp said, referring to the stabbing attack in July that killed Nia Wilson and wounded her sister at the MacArthur station platform. “I don’t feel safe at all. In fact, I always have to look around,” she said.
To hear additional riders’ concerns and suggestions, the transit system is hosting another board meeting. The board will discuss details of the safety plan and other issues starting at 5 p.m. on Sept. 27 at Pittsburg City Hall.
“Our riders can have their say,” Filippi said.