BART's New Police Chief Wants Riders to Feel Safe — and Gets a Reminder That Many Don't

3 min
Cheryl Willner, left, tells BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez about being accosted on a train as she traveled to San Francisco International Airport.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Ed Alvarez, appointed Friday as BART's new police chief, had just finished telling a reporter about his top priorities for the transit agency and its police force.

"I want people to be safe," Alvarez said near the conclusion of a media event at Balboa Park Station. "That's my ultimate goal. I want people to be on our system, safe. So they're able to get to their destinations ... and not be worried about being accosted or anything like that."

To achieve that goal, the new chief announced he's assigning a dozen officers to patrol trains and station platforms on nights and weekends. That, along with a six-month pilot project approved by the agency's board of directors Thursday to deploy 10 uniformed but unarmed ambassadors to patrol trains every evening, is designed to improve security on the system with a more visible BART presence.

"My main goal is to create that presence to mitigate and to get everybody safely to where they need to be," Alvarez said.

But no sooner had Alvarez said that than he got a reminder of how far BART has to go to win over customers rattled by the crime, mental illness and aggressive behavior they sometimes encounter on the system.

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Just as Alvarez finished speaking, a woman approached and said, "I have a complaint."

Cheryl Willner, 67, of Dublin, had just gotten off a train to transfer to one going to San Francisco International Airport. She was on her way to her job as a flight attendant for American Airlines. It wasn't clear she knew she was addressing BART's chief of police as she recounted her trip from the East Bay.

"This guy got on, a homeless guy, and he had like four paper bags with," Willner said. "He just got on and plopped them down. And he started talking to himself and changing his clothes and blowing his nose. ... I got up and moved to the next car back."

The man followed her, she told Alvarez.

"I was looking to make sure he didn't come back, and then he came back," Willner told Alvarez. "And then he started going off, 'You're looking at me. You're doing this, you're doing that.' I can't even tell you what he said. I just looked down at my phone, and then I called my husband and was on the phone with my husband for 15 minutes."

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The man got off at Embarcadero Station, Willner said, but she was still shaken by the experience.

"I will never take BART again, ever," Willner said.

"I'm 67 years old, and I can't do this ever again," she said, "I've been here for 10 years, and I don't feel safe. You know, I know you guys are trying. I know you can't be everywhere. But this is not OK."

"Sorry to hear that," Alvarez said. "Sorry you had to experience that on your way to work. I hope you give us another shot."

He offered to talk to Willner privately and give her some "safety tips" that might be useful.

"We have a BART Watch app that you could get direct-lined to our dispatch center," the chief said. "You could report stuff. ..."

Willner interrupted.

"You know what, I do that every single frickin' day on my job," she said. "I don't want to have to do that in my hometown. It's not OK. That's all."

She added: "You're very nice, Officer Alvarez — you are. I'm sorry to be complaining."

"That's all right," Alvarez said. "I want to hear that. I need to know that kind of stuff so I know where to deploy my resources and understand what's happening and what the riders are seeing and experiencing."

He ended by saying he hoped Willner would give BART "another opportunity to give you a better ride."

"We'll see," Willner said.