Did a police sergeant overreact when he dragged a young woman off a Metro train for keeping her feet on a seat? It turns out, the elected officials who oversee the transit agency are just as divided as the public.
The incident, which was captured on viral video, dominated conversation at a Metro board meeting Thursday. A more restrained CEO Phil Washington, who had initially skewered the police for their response, kicked off the conversation.
“I can say a lot about this incident—but I won’t—because I want to respect the investigation that’s underway,” he said.
That didn’t stop other Metro directors from weighing in, and it quickly became clear that, like the public discussion that has erupted online, there are many different ways to interpret what happened Monday at the MacArthur Park subway station.
In the video, an Los Angeles Police Department sergeant is seen grabbing an 18-year-old rider by her arm, pulling her off her seat, and dragging her off the train as passengers plead with him to stop. A police department spokesperson later said the sergeant had asked the woman multiple times to take her feet off of the seat, and she would not, a violation of Metro’s code of conduct.
The woman was detained, cited “engaging in boisterous or unruly behavior,” then released. The video has been seen more than 11 million times now—to impassioned but mixed reaction, with some saying the police power-tripped.
But Inglewood Mayor and Metro director James Butts, who served 15 years as chief of the Santa Monica Police Department, said Thursday he believes the sergeant acted properly.
“I don’t need to see an investigation,” Butts said. “This sergeant did an excellent job in what was an impossible situation. No one could have expected that telling someone to take their feet off the furniture would gravitate to this.”
He pointed the blame at the young woman for “escalating the situation.”
“I will tell you that as I watched that video, I kept saying, ‘Okay, so what’s the thing that he’s going to do that’s wrong?” Butts said. “I say, ‘Oh, I get it, he’s going to smack this lady who’s in his face haranguing him while he’s trying to detain this brat.’ But he doesn’t.”
Butts said the sergeant was justified, because the woman violated Metro’s code of conduct by having her foot on the seat, and that the violation justified what happened after.
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Director Hilda Solis, an Los Angeles County Supervisor, said the incident made her question whether staffing only uniformed police officers was the best way to keep Metro vehicles safe. She was reminded of, how in the past, sheriff’s deputies who patrolled Metro trains, buses, and stations would sometimes be paired with quasi-community ambassadors.
“Why couldn’t we think about having some goodwill folks that can help be those voices for rationality and sensibility?” Solis asked.
Speaking as a citizen whose husband and son are uniformed police officers, director Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker, a Garcetti appointee to the board and president of the nonprofit housing Ward Economic Development Corporation, said she questioned why the sergeant was patrolling alone.
“My first thought was, ‘Why was he alone?’ Maybe if he had a partner, which I believe is our policy, there would have been someone to deescalate the situation,” said Dupont-Walker.
She also said she was unsure whether the LAPD sergeant acted within Metro policy.
“The policy that’s set in place is first to address the passenger, and secondly to issue a citation. In the portion of the incident that I was able to see, I was not able to see effort to issue a citation,” she said.
Dupont Walker also alluded to the fact that, in many instances, transit riders of color feel unfairly profiled or harassed by onboard law enforcement.
“I am also mindful of the reports that we’ve received at the customer satisfaction committee, that persons of color feel they are treated differently on the train by sworn officers,” she said.
Director Mike Bonin, an Los Angeles City Councilmember, made the crucial point that perception of Metro’s system safety can vary dramatically between different passengers, depending on their life experiences.
Alluding to a Wednesday meeting of the City Council’s public safety committee, where councilmember Nury Martinez said she wasn’t comfortable riding the Red Line with her daughter, Bonin emphasized that many people feel genuinely unsafe while aboard Metro vehicles.
“There are a lot of people who have a lot of fear of our system,” Bonin said Thursday. “And we’re making efforts to address it. But what we also have to understand is that, as we try to navigate this issue, there are lots of people who also feel unsafe on our system because of their perception or experiences with law enforcement.”
“I think it’s important to not go into either corner and say this is the reality. Frankly our system is dealing with both situations,” said Bonin.