CA: Saving riders from ODs or aiding tourists, LA Metro Ambassadors take ‘good with bad’

June 10, 2024
After nearly two years, Metro is seeking to make the program permanent. While these workers are currently contract employees, Metro is pursuing a plan to turn the ambassadors into Metro employees with Metro benefits.

The frightened A Line light-rail passenger didn’t utter a word.

While riding the train between the Washington and Firestone stations in South Los Angeles, the young woman showed LA Metro Ambassador Shaani McNeil a message on her phone that read, “I believe a man is following me and I need help.”

McNeil took out her work phone and typed a response: “Where are you going?’

The two continued the silent conversation, avoiding any appearance that the woman had sought help — to avoid tipping off the man lurking behind her. Instead, as the train stopped, McNeil and a co-worker escorted the passenger to the Firestone Station exit, where she had typed on her phone that her father would be waiting.

“She was a student. And yes, her dad was there,” said McNeil, 40. “I wasn’t scared. My only concern was her safety,” she recalled during an interview on June 5.

Between October 2022 and April 2024, Ambassadors helped more than 1 million people, dialed 911 about 1,000 times and recorded safety-related incidents on the Metro Transit Watch app 3,700 times. They’ve saved 215 lives, using Narcan 166 times to revive passengers dying of opioid overdoses and using CPR or suicide intervention techniques to save 49 others, Metro reported last week.

After nearly two years, Metro is seeking to make the program permanent. While these workers are currently contract employees, Metro is pursuing a plan to turn the ambassadors into Metro employees with Metro benefits. “We are working on a plan to transfer the program in-house,” said Karen Parks Sr., director of special projects for LA Metro.

A day in the life of the 346 LA Metro Ambassadors can go from defusing a tense atmosphere like the one on the A-Line train, to reviving a drug addict with the nasal spray Narcan, to talking someone out of taking their own life, to giving tourists directions to the beach.

“When people get close to the edge of the platform, the ambassadors engage them and seek help for them,” explained Parks.

More common are encounters with tourists and Southern California residents who ask how to find the correct train, stop or station. They often ask for eatery and entertainment recommendations, the ambassadors reported.

Locals know their way onto and off of a freeway, but are unsure how to navigate the growing LA Metro train and bus system. The system has six rail lines and 108 rail stations, including the 49-mile A Line, the longest light-rail line in the world, which goes from Azusa to Pasadena, downtown L.A. and Long Beach. Metro also operates 120 bus lines on 2,400 bus runs, including the G (Orange) Bus Rapid Transit Line in the San Fernando Valley. Total weekday ridership reached 970,000 in April, and is growing.

Ambassadors also encounter tourists from across the globe on vacation in L.A.

Many say they’re surprised to experience the length and complexity of the rail system, with an extension of the D (Purple) Line to Westwood and connection to LAX coming in the next few years. “They are completely shocked by how far they can go, and need guidance. They are awed by how expansive our (train) lines are,” said Derosalyn Johnson of Culver City, who has been an LA Metro Ambassador for nearly a year.

Johnson, who is in her 30s and worked as a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) before taking this job, said people — locals and foreigners alike — want a 30-second friend to reassure them they’re on the best route and that they are transit safe.

“Most of the people we encounter need support knowing what they already know,” she began, during an interview on June 5. “People want us to verify their way, so they feel that reassurance. It is um, almost like having your own personal friend for a few seconds.”

Dave Moreland, 70, has been on the job for 1 1/2 years. His service in Vietnam as a medic and later driving a school bus for 12 years, gives him experience interacting with people. He’s used Narcan three times and saved two others through CPR.

Johnson enjoys the give-and-take with passengers, stressing that there is no such thing as a dumb question.

For example, the tall elevators at the new Grand Ave/Bunker Hill Station give people pause. Or people get claustrophobic so they want the quickest way to move the elevator to their destination floor. “People can ask us the sheepish questions that they normally would be embarrassed to ask. Like, ‘What button do I press to get to the first floor? Is it No. 1?’ I say yes, it is OK. Because we don’t know where their anxiety comes from.”

Anxiety on LA Metro arises for many reasons and lurks in many places.

Elevators can be dark, enclosed spaces where drug-users hang out. Station signs can be confusing and people get lost. And there have been a string of violent episodes on the system that often lead the TV newscasts, worrying passengers. There have been 10 stabbings and two shootings in a six-week period through May 22.

Mirna Soza Arauz, a 66-year-old mom and grandma was stabbed to death on April 22. She was riding the B (Red) Line train at the Universal City Station in Studio City, heading home from her job as a night security guard at Tommy’s Restaurant in North Hills. On May 17, Juan Luis Gomez-Ramirez, a teacher visiting from Mexico, was sitting on the 108 bus in Commerce when another passengers got up, walked toward the rear exit, pointed a gun at the back of his head and fired, killing Gomez-Ramirez instantly.

While Metro has added more law enforcement and Transit Security Officers on lines and stations with the most incidents, they also are bumping up the number of Transit Ambassadors, who use cell phones to report crimes but don’t carry weapons. Metro will add 50 more per day, amounting to 25 more per shift. “The surge has begun. We are phasing it in to get to 50 more per day,” Parks said.

“Sometimes people feel distant when they see a badge and a gun,” said Johnson. “When they see us, with the green shirts, they are smiling.”

While they mostly connect riders to resources and give directions, their duties have expanded in the last year. They all receive de-escalation training as well as training in CPR and Narcan usage. While some critics say hard-nosed policing is the best way to cut down on crime, Metro has stuck with the Ambassador program as one layer of defense, saying their presence can calm jittery passengers and alert law enforcement to criminal activity, Parks said.

“People feel safer when they see ambassadors on the system,” Parks said. A recent survey of passengers found 52% felt safer after seeing or engaging with an ambassador, Metro reported. “You can see the comfort across the riders’ faces when they ask a question and an ambassador provides a response.”

Ambassadors Johnson and McNeil said they definitely think riders feel safer due to their mere presence on platforms and aboard trains and bus lines.

Surveys found women in particular stopped riding the system because they did not feel safe. A survey in late 2022 found female bus ridership dropped 4%, rail ridership lost 2% of females. About 55% of females in the survey cited safety issues as needing the most improvement. Jennifer Vides, LA Metro’s chief customer experience officer, put herself in the shoes of female riders.

“We are looking to make it more comfortable for women,” she said. “We feel uneasy standing there by ourselves. Just knowing someone is there helps us feel safer.” She says that’s similar to escorts provided to women co-eds on college campuses at night.

Johnson agreed. She said after initiating a talk with two middle-aged women on the B Line, they told her they were afraid to speak out when a male passenger was harassing them. “I tell them we are here,” Johnson said, and to report even non-violent incidents on the Metro Transit App anonymously.

“I have had plenty of women just get up and stand by us,” she said.

Sometimes the job can be tough. McNeil said standing on your feet for an entire shift is not for everyone. Johnson said she’s had to administer Narcan and both times the person recovered, but neither of them thanked her.

“No. They are more concerned with just getting out of there. They see police standing over them and they high-tail it out.”

What she’s learned is to “take the good with the bad” and to look at people from their perspective. That gets her through the tough days.

“We are all human. We are all deserving of respect,” she said.

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