Plainclothes sheriff's deputies patrol the city's transit system

Susan Abram
LA Daily News
Oct 24, 2010

On many of Los Angeles' busiest boulevards, luxury cars carry the pretty and the famous to homes high in the Hollywood Hills.

LA County Sheriff deputy Darrin Thompson and Sgt. Carlos Jaen lead a suspected drug dealer out of the North Hollywood Metro Station during a plain clothes foot patol on the LA Metro system Tuesday, October 19, 2010. Members of the LA County Sheriff's Department routinely conduct the patrols to check for fare violators and suspicious activity.

LA County Sheriff deputy Darrin Thompson and Sgt. Carlos Jaen lead a suspected drug dealer out of the North Hollywood Metro Station during a plain clothes foot patol on the LA Metro system Tuesday, October 19, 2010. Members of the LA County Sheriff's Department routinely conduct the patrols to check for fare violators and suspicious activity. (Andy Holzman/Staff Photographer)

But below the surface, the people's limo glides through 17.4 miles of tunnels, taking its passengers to places like North Hollywood, downtown and MacArthur Park.

Matthew Rodriguez knows one truth about public transit riders and all the others who use Los Angeles' Red Line subway: 97 percent of them are honest.

It's Rodriguez's job to protect them from the remaining 3 percent.

On a recent night, Rodriguez boarded a Red Line train, zipped open his backpack, pulled out a dark green jacket and slipped it on over the classic Green Bay Packers Brett Favre jersey that had helped him blend in with the crowd. Fifteen other men and women who walked onto the subway with him did the same.

"Sheriff's Department! Please take out your tickets and TAP cards!" shouted Rodriguez, a lieutenant with the department's Transit Services Bureau.

Since last year, Rodriguez and the bureau's other members have worked to step up efforts to check tickets and TAP cards along the Red Line. The goal is to enforce the honor system in one of the nation's rare big-city transit systems that does not have locking turnstiles or other barriers.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is working to install locking turnstiles and gates, but the effort has been hampered by problems, meaning the honor system - and the need for deputies like Rodriguez - is likely to continue for years.

"The purpose of the plainclothes operation is to keep people honest," Rodriguez said. "Just because you don't see a deputy doesn't mean there isn't a deputy there."

The special unit is one component to the Sheriff Department's transit operation. More than 350 members patrol, investigate, and secure miles of transit lines. Specialized units ride all the rail routes in addition to the Orange Line busway. Others work to stop taggers and deter terrorists, and use bomb-sniffing dogs to spot suspicious bags across 70 stations.

To some Los Angeles residents, the Red Line subway and its 16 stations still may be perceived as a sort of netherworld. But crime and arrests remain down considering the number of riders.

In August, the last month for which data was available, 3 million people rode the Red Line. At least 308,000 were asked to show their tickets or blue-and-orange TAP cards and 1,458 were cited for fare evasion.

In addition, there were 13 arrests for Part I or serious crimes, including thefts, assaults, strong-arm robbery and one armed robbery.

Since the year began, there were 97 such arrests altogether.

"The Sheriff's Department has been a critical partner in keeping the Metro transit system safe and secure," said Paul Taylor, deputy CEO for Metro. "We depend greatly on their policing services on a 24-hour, 7-day- per-week basis throughout Metro's 1,433-mile service area."

The plainclothes operation takes place at night, when the faces of the riders change from the serious morning commuter heading to and from work to those who are barely hanging on to what little they have. As each hour passes into the evening, more runaways and teens board the subways. Skirts get shorter and tank tops tighter as some prostitutes make their way on the train. Young single mothers cling to babies on their laps.

One thing seems certain: Fare evaders have more to hide than the rest of the commuters, such as rock cocaine stuffed in a pocket, counterfeit DVDs in a backpack, arrest warrants in their pasts or an empty wallet and no job.

Rodriguez and his crew found all of those one Monday night. With more than 6,000 people stopped, they issued 54 citations and made three felony and three misdemeanor arrests. The penalty for fare evasion: $250 and 48 hours of community service.

"Business is booming!" said Sgt. Carlos Jaen as he questioned a young man from the neighborhood Crips, his linear tattoos on his neck and forehead symbols of his loyalty. He was caught sans ticket under the "Ticket Required Beyond This Point," sign at the Hollywood and Vine station.

He left with a yellow citation slip and a scowl on his face.

"I keep trying to put up the closed sign but the business keeps coming," Jaen said of all those he caught just before boarding the subway that night.

Another fare evader, a man whose face glistened with perspiration, had a lump of cocaine in his pocket, but no ticket. Pink-colored handcuffs, in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, were clicked onto his wrists.

"I feel very bad," the man said to Rodriguez.

"Are you under the influence?" Rodriguez asked?

"Yeah," said the man, his head lowered. "I need help."

"We'll get you the help you need," Rodriguez assured him.

Janet Smith, a first-time Red Line commuter from North Hollywood who had boarded at the Wilshire station said she liked the idea of plainclothes deputies riding with her. She hadn't activated her TAP card properly and was pulled aside for a quick lesson.

Customers are supposed to tap their card against the TAP validator when they board a Metro bus or enter subway and train stations.

"It was refreshing," Smith, 58, said. "This is my first time on the train and to have the security is surprising."

Maricela Moreno, 18, is a veteran transit commuter from Van Nuys. She takes two trains to get to two different cleaning jobs, one of them at an office building at night. She is trying to help her mother get by.

"I used to ride it in high school," she said. "It feels safe all the time."