Sam Allard / Scene
RTA officials announce the new Transit Ambassador program, (9/6/22).
As riders disembarked from Red, Blue and Green line Rapid Transit trains at Tower City Center Tuesday morning, officials with the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) announced the launch of a long-awaited program that will put civilian ambassadors on buses and trains.
Framed as a "progressive policing and community engagement" initiative, the ambassador program is designed to decrease the presence of armed law enforcement on the RTA system, while providing identifiable personnel to assist customers with mobility and navigation issues and simultaneously discourage disruptive behavior.
RTA CEO India Birdsong said the program, which will include a total of 10 ambassadors and 4 crisis intervention specialists once fully staffed, has been on the agency's agenda for several years. She said she hoped it demonstrated RTA's commitment to safety.
"It's been quite an endeavor to get here," Birdsong said. "This program was born out of conversations to create a safe environment for our customers and staff alike... We want our programs to embody our [new mission statement, "Connecting the Community], and to effectuate that as strategically as possible."
Putting boots on the ground, Birdsong said, especially as riders return to the system in increasing numbers after two-plus years of a global pandemic, makes RTA more visible and more welcoming. She referenced the Downtown Cleveland Ambassadors program and noted that the RTA ambassadors, like DCA's representatives, will help to maintain not only a safe but a clean environment for riders.
The ambassador program emerged, in part, from conversations that began after a 2017 legal decision. Cleveland Municipal Court judge Emanuella Groves ruled that RTA's system of enforcing fares
with armed officers on the HealthLine and Red Line was unconstitutional.
The current ambassador program is not designed as a replacement for fare enforcement, RTA COO Dr. Floun'say Caver said. Though they won't be "checking fares," they will assist with fare payment and other navigational questions. Caver described the program first and foremost as a way to enhance the RTA customer experience.
In addition to the ambassadors, who will wear a uniform of red jackets and khaki pants, two crisis intervention specialists have been hired and two more have been budgeted for. These are trained social workers who will embed with RTA police and go out on calls in a kind of "co-responder" model. The goal will be to deescalate situations and incorporate "21st century policing tactics" across the spectrum of incidents the transit police encounter.
RTA's Board Chair, Rev. Charles Lucas, said he inherited the idea of the ambassadors program when he stepped into the board chairmanship, and that he was happy to see it come to fruition under RTA's current administration.
"I don't want to get biblical with you," he said, "but an ambassador is one who comes to bring peace to a situation. That's what these ambassadors are going to do. They're going to get on these buses and rails and bring peace to situations. They're going to take difficult situations that are all tied up and turn them into a straight line."
According to a news release on the program, one to two teams per shift will provide coverage on RTA’s HealthLine and at Rapid stations, and will expand to other routes and locations as the program grows. Responding to a question from the media Tuesday, Dr. Caver said that even with the addition of the ambassadors, the HealthLine will not, at the moment, return to all-door boarding. Local riders and transit activists have agitated for a return to all-door boarding to increase the efficiency of Cleveland's marquee Bus Rapid Transit route.
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