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BART safety: Drug overdose deaths on track to surge in 2023

A BART passenger smokes crystal methamphetamine while riding the system in San Francisco on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

At around 11 a.m. on the morning of July 10, an emergency call to first responders reported an unresponsive man aboard an Antioch-bound Yellow Line BART train.

First responders rushed to meet the train at Concord station where, despite their best efforts, the man was pronounced dead of an apparent overdose, becoming the latest in a growing number of deaths on the system. 

BART is far from the only transit system dealing with the twin crises of homelessness and opioid addiction, but it stands apart in its struggle to get ridership back to pre-pandemic levels. Conditions on trains are one of the top issues identified by lapsed riders. 

Seven people died on the BART system in the first three months of the year, according to data obtained via a public records request. Nearly all were due to suspected overdoses.

While there were 22 deaths on the trains and buses of the Los Angeles Metro between January and March 14, according to the Los Angeles Times, that system has around 25 million monthly riders, versus BART’s 4 million in 2023.

Based on available data for this year, the number of deaths put BART on pace to exceed last year’s total of 19. That number excludes the four suspected homicides on BART property in 2022.

Sara Shortt, the director of policy and community organizing at the nonprofit HomeRise, said public transit systems like BART face the problem of those with substance use disorders regarding the system as a safe place to use drugs. 

“We’re talking about people with pretty hardcore substance use disorders. It’s not even a matter of ‘Where can I go to do my drugs?’ It’s more like, ‘Where can I go to just be?’” Shortt said. 

The kinds of people who can’t stop using even while on the train, Shortt said, are facing a medical condition. 

Betty, center, who is homeless, stands on the BART platform while a friend sits on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

A Bay Area Council poll released in May found that 85% of BART riders who have reduced or eliminated their usage said they would ride the system more often if it was significantly cleaner and safer to ride. Respondents said BART was doing a particularly poor job with addressing homelessness on the system and dealing with drinking, drug use and fare evasion.

A Grim Trend

Official BART policy dictates that when a BART employee encounters someone suffering from an apparent overdose, they are required to summon responders through their dispatch system and provide medical aid, which can include administering the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, often known as Narcan. 

Overdose deaths on BART are generally categorized as “unattended deaths,” defined as a situation where a physician is not present to sign a death certificate. 

Unattended deaths on BART property have gradually ticked up over the past few years, in line with the growing severity of the fentanyl crisis. 

Last year’s 19 deaths nearly doubled the 11 unattended deaths on BART in 2021, itself a slight increase from the 10 people found dead on the system in 2020. In 2019, BART reported 12 such deaths.

In an effort to bolster solutions, BART has put additional resources in its Progressive Policing and Community Engagement Bureau, a division of its police department that includes transit ambassadors, crisis-intervention specialists and other unarmed safety personnel. 

Karen Seiler, a crisis intervention specialist, checks on the well-being of passengers riding BART in Oakland. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

The system is also raising salary offers to help recruit officers and shifting deployment strategies so that at least 50% of patrol officers are assigned to ride trains.

Both BART sworn police officers and Progressive Policing members have Narcan as part of their standard equipment. Average monthly deployments of the opioid antidote have gone from around 10 in 2022 to 17 in the first three months of 2023.  

“There are no silos anymore. The world we live in is one in which there are so many intersections and bleeding over of social issues into other government programs, infrastructure and systems,” Shortt said.

Short on Solutions

But data provided via public records request shows the limitations of an approach where crisis intervention specialists and other unarmed safety staff have only the ability to coax those dealing with mental health or drug addiction issues to services.  

In the first three months of 2023, BART progressive policing staff attempted 4,195 “outreach contacts,” the system’s term for engagements with riders who appear to be homeless or struggling with a crisis. Of that number, there were 238 instances of people being successfully linked to services and resources, corresponding to a success rate of 5.7%.

BART Director Debora Allen said when she takes the system’s trains, more often than not she encounters people using drugs. That impacts people’s feelings of safety and willingness to use public transit. 

She said she’s skeptical of the system’s alternative policing approach because of the lack of consequences for those that break the system’s code of conduct, which prohibits drug use and other disruptive behavior.  

“If somebody’s doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, the alternative police have no authority to intervene in that situation,” Allen said. 

Allen said a priority should be on hardening the entryways to the BART system through initiatives like the installation of new fare gates.

“If we don’t address the entrance and exit to the BART system, which happens to be in the same place, nothing is going to change,” she said, adding that the majority of those who are arrested on BART did not pay a fare. 

Even as BART has celebrated some of its highest ridership numbers in recent months, driven by major events like San Francisco Pride, overall ridership return is still among the slowest of any major transit system in the country. 

The majority of the largest mass transit system systems around the country have recovered at least 50% of their pre-pandemic ridership numbers, but BART sits firmly in last place at around 40% of 2019 levels. Los Angeles Metro, on the other hand, has seen its ridership recover to 77% of pre-pandemic levels. 

For policies that may help reduce overdose deaths, Shortt raised the potential for safe-consumption sites, as well as increasing the availability of Narcan on BART paired with public education campaigns. 

“Frankly, it’s a lot harder to stop people from using outright than preventing overdoses,” Shortt said. “That’s the most important thing too, stopping death.”