The B-sides

You know, when I started writing about the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch, I didn’t really expect to get more than a couple of posts out of it before moving on to some fresh new piece of ineptness. Same thing with BART. I expected to do one or two columns about management and the unions shooting themselves in the feet, and then be done with it.

Clearly, Caltrans and BART are exceeding all expectations. I’m quite happy to have such splendid targets for my curmudgeonly wrath. So happy that I need to be careful about overdoing it. I don’t want to bore my loyal (and not-so-loyal) readers, so I’m going to limit myself to one post per month about the Bs. Unless there’s some breaking news, of course…

So with that said, here’s the B-side for February.


Let’s start with the Bay Bridge. The new bridge has been open since September and it hasn’t fallen down yet. What’s to talk about?

Well, way back in pre-history (i.e. before I started writing this blog), there was a mini-scandal involving bad welds on major structural members of the roadbed. I say “mini-scandal” because the welds were inspected, some of them were redone, and Caltrans moved on to bigger and better cost overruns.

Now we have whistle-blowers claiming that they had been ordered not to report the bad welds in writing so that the reports wouldn’t become part of the public record. That could explain a lot. If the accusations are true–and let’s note that they haven’t been proven–they could be part of a general Caltrans policy. Find a problem, report it verbally. We’ve been asking since we started talking about the bridge where the records of the QA work are. Maybe now we know: they don’t exist, not because no testing was done, but because supervisors didn’t want problems documented. Interesting thought, no?

Speaking of cost overruns, it appears that taking down the old eastern span of the bridge is already six months behind schedule. That’s not going to be cheap to fix… It seems that the core of the problem is that Caltrans was so busy trying to open the bridge by Labor Day that nobody filed the necessary paperwork to get the demolition permits. Really? Caltrans has–according to Wikipedia–over 22,000 employees. None of them said “Hey, wait a minute. The plan says we need to file for demolition permits about now”? Or maybe there wasn’t a plan? I know: the plan was communicated verbally to ensure there was not public record of delays! Oh, wait.


Then there’s BART. Everyone, labor and management, have signed off on the new contracts, so it should be smooth sailing now–at least for a couple of years until they start negotiating the new contracts, right? Apparently not. BART board President Joel Keller is pushing for a new contract negotiation process modeled on the one used by Major League Baseball: both sides supply two representatives. They then select a neutral fifth person, such as a retired judge, and the panel chooses either BART’s proposed contract or the unions’. No compromises, one contract or the other. The proposal has met with limited approval, but the unions are not going to sign onto it if a provision preventing them from striking while the board is considering the proposed contracts remains. My own thought: the idea has a lot of merit, but I’d like to see the commuters get a voice in the process. Add a requirement that the fifth panel member has to have commuted via BART at least twice a week for the previous year, and I’m in.

Labor negotiations may be the least of BART’s problems in the immediate future, though. Right now, there are a lot of eyes on the BART police. Yes, BART has its own police force, and yes, they are actually police, not security guards. They’re in the public eye because one officer died in a “friendly fire” incident two weeks ago during a probation search of a robbery suspect’s apartment. Why were BART officers conducting the search? Because the robberies in question had occurred on BART.

There are a lot of people questioning whether BART really needs its own police, or whether the public would be better served if BART drew its police from the cities where the system operates. They point to procedural errors during the search as well as the well-publicized 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant as evidence that BART’s training and oversight are inadequate. On the other hand, there are obvious potential problems with using civic police forces for BART work. Questions of jurisdiction spring to mind, as do financial and staffing concerns (case in point: Oakland is seriously short of police already; seconding officers to BART would be a huge burden on the city.)

Then there are the protesters who are demanding that the BART police be disarmed. Obviously, they say, if the police don’t have guns, they can’t shoot anyone. Problem solved!

Do I even need to point out the flaw in this plan? I suppose I do, since they’re proposing it with straight faces. It’s the same reason that civic police carry guns: criminals won’t give up their weapons if the police don’t have guns. I’m not going to start a gun control debate here, but until there’s some actual evidence that unilateral disarmament reduces crime, I’m going to regard all such proposals with scorn.

I don’t have a simple solution to BART’s police problem, but it seems obvious to me that the answer lies somewhere in the realm of improving the organization’s processes and training, whether on their own or as part of another group.

2 thoughts on “The B-sides

  1. The most recent BART officer shooting did raise a few puzzling questions in my mind. First, what were BART police doing, searching someone’s apartment- you addressed (if not answered) that question- and, second, these men were BART “Detectives”. I had no idea that BART had, or needed, Detectives. Perhaps the question of need is addressed by your report that they were investigating a crime that was committed on BART, but the whole thing still leaves me feeling queasy. BART police are, let’s face it, glorified (and I mean that literally) security officers, who’s purview, I would think, should be restricted to providing security on the trains and in the vicinity of the stations. (And, I might insert here, they are doing a pretty poor job of that, in the vicinity of the Ashby station). The idea that they can and should go out in our community and do home searches, just because the alleged crime was committed on a train seems to me to be stretching a point. I think, too, that this a point that BART officers often stretch. They react very badly to the suggestion that they are “only security officers”. Like any person (or organization) that secretly suspects they are lower on the totem pole than “the real thing”, they are reactive and defensive, and will go to great lengths to make sure they are not “disrespected”, no matter how often it is shown that they are, relatively, poorly trained and undisciplined.
    That question aside, this raises unsettling questions about precedence and jurisdiction. Let’s say, for a minute, that Oakland Airport has it’s own security officers (in addition to TSA, of course). If I am believed to have stolen a bagel from a lunch counter, and I got away, does Oakland Security (or, for all I know, “Police”), have the right to come looking for me, including a search of my home? Why not? Works for BART.
    As I said, lots of questions, and a queasy feeling that “mission creep” has resulted in people legally doing things that they have no business doing- and that this will keep on happening. Power, after all, once granted is a stone bitch to withdraw, especially from heavily armed and marginally disciplined people.
    After you.

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    • Not going to make a long post at the moment, but I’ll throw out a couple of things. If I recall correctly, there was some discussion early on about why BART police were doing the search. Among other things, apparently probation searches are seriously backlogged in most agencies; waiting for the local police to get to it probably would have meant that it would never get done.

      Since BART police are police (the phrase “sworn police” keeps coming up) as opposed to security guards gives them the legal authority to conduct such searches in pursuit of an ongoing investigation. Whether they

        should

      do so is, IMNSHO, not something that can be answered in an all-or-nothing way.

      If the Oakland security people are legally police, then presumably they could; if they are, as you put it, “only security officers”, then as I understand it, they have no more right to search your home than you have to search theirs–though “hot pursuit” would allow them to chase you beyond the bounds of the airport, I suspect.

      Let’s be clear here: the word “police” implies a legal distinction involving training, accredited organizations, and oaths to serve the public that “security guards” don’t have.

      And let us not forget that as several articles in the Chron have pointed out, the police in the cities BART serves have explicitly turned down requests to provide the necessary coverage, largely because they don’t see a way to handle the jurisdictional issues.

      I agree that power, once granted, can’t be easily taken away. And personally, I think there are too many separate police organizations in the Bay Area already (city, county, state, BART, etc., etc., etc.) but merging them could be just as bad; as it is, they can act as counterbalances to each other.

      As I said, I don’t see a simple answer.

      Hmm. Longer response than I expected.

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