Commentary, Opinion

STM safety ambassadors are customers in uniform, not adequate emergency responders

If you saw an emergency on the metro, what would be your first instinct? Would you intervene yourself? Would you call the police? Ask another bystander for help? Google what to do? Odds are you didn’t say, “Find one of six safety ambassadors scattered around the metro station who cannot actually intervene in an emergency but will call the police for me!” Yet, the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) believes this is what Montrealers need. 

In October, the STM announced that officers responsible for monitoring metro stations would now be armed with pepper spray on duty, a drastic and violent measure intended to ease the safety concerns of commuters. After complaints poured in, the STM implemented a new strategy, deploying safety ambassadors at metro stations. The STM made this decision to address commuter safety concerns around houselessness, drug use, and mental health crises at metro stations. However, safety ambassadors do not adequately solve these issues. They cover up the city’s failure to implement practical, effective solutions to the problems that residents are voicing their concerns over, such as fatal drug overdoses occurring openly in front of commuters’ eyes. 

The implementation of this system will also increase police violence and surveillance that individuals experiencing houselessness already face. Specifically, statements of offence issued to unhoused Indigenous peoples have increased exponentially over the past few years. Considering that the role of safety ambassadors is to monitor metro stations, these numbers are likely to rise even more, hurting already marginalized and vulnerable communities. 

What can safety ambassadors do that any ordinary person with a phone could not? The STM refers to safety ambassadors as a source of “reassurance,” someone to answer questions related to safety and to provide information and guidance. Another role of the safety ambassadors is “supporting major events”—an absurdly vague and meaningless task. The STM called the safety ambassadors the “eyes and ears” of the metro system, but the Director of Security and Fire Safety of the STM said the same thing about STM customers just one day before. Evidently, safety ambassadors are no different than any STM customer—they are simply customers in uniform.

Additionally, the STM has not clarified whether the 80 hours of training that safety ambassadors undergo involves actual intervention in emergencies such as administering overdose-reversing drugs or de-escalating physical conflicts. The STM has said that these ambassadors are trained to assist customers and contact the police in an emergency. Anyone can call the police when witnessing an emergency, even without 80 hours of training. 

The STM website redirects users to a customer contact form for non-emergency concerns. One of five options in direct emergencies is to alert a safety ambassador. But the chances of somebody looking for one of the three pairs of ambassadors roaming the station are slim. Most likely, people are going to press one of the big red emergency buttons or dial 911 on their cellphones. Posters or even the website remain much more accessible and useful than six people walking around the station in intimidating uniforms. 
This new system shows that the government’s idea of taking action and tackling important issues is in fact doing nothing at all. Meanwhile, safety concerns inevitably continue, and their root causes—unaffordable housing and inadequate social services—have yet to be dealt with. While safety ambassadors are certainly a better option than increased policing they are just another band-aid solution. At some point, the government of Montreal will have to address these problems head-on—the safety ambassadors only delay this essential work. Instead, the government of Montreal should reallocate the funding for these systems into subsidized housing for unhoused populations or invest it in community-based mental health services, both of which have proven to be effective measures at preventing crime and contributing to a safer city.

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