UTA study says dumping agency police force would up costs
After spending months studying how other transit agencies nationwide provide police service, the Utah Transit Authority figures that abolishing its 11-year-old police force would likely cost the agency more than it would save.
That is the bottom line of a 470-page report that UTA distributed this week to UTA board members. Chris Bleak, chairman of the board's Finance & Operations Committee, said members will take a month to study the volume before an expected debate about how and whether to change its police services.
"Contracting law enforcement and fare enforcement functions are likely to increase the percentage of the operating budget required to support public safety," UTA Chief Safety Officer Dave Goeres, who oversees UTA Police, told the committee as he presented highlights of the report.
New board member Troy Walker in April pushed colleagues to consider abolishing the UTA Police to save money and perhaps improve training and professionalism. So UTA staff researched how other transit agencies provide services, how UTA spending compares, and how others handle fare evasion.
The study says UTA has the seventh lowest cost per police employee Â $70,730 Â out of 29 transit agencies that provided data on that question. The median was $112,820. Some agencies that were even lower, such as San Diego and Denver, contract for services.
UTA spent the 11th lowest percentage of its operations budget for public safety Â 3.1 percent Â out of 31 agencies that provided data. The median was 3.9 percent. Most agencies that were on the lower end of the spectrum also operate their own police agencies.
The study also compared UTA costs to some local police agencies in the Salt Lake metro area. It said UTA paid between 4.7 and 11.1 percent less than average for officers depending on their rank, and paid 21 percent less than average for benefits.
Transit police • The UTA survey found 53 percent of transit agencies operate their own police departments. So, "The way UTA is structured is the most common," Goeres said.
Some 35 percent of transit agencies contract with a police or security agency, the report said, and 12 percent have a hybrid situation where they have internal supervisors who oversee contract officers.
UTA has 60 sworn police officers, plus 18 security officers (who handle security on railways and buildings) and four administrators. Its annual budget is now $5.8 million.
Most transit agencies do not handle fare enforcement as do UTA Police.
The report said 36 percent of transit agencies use their own police to enforce fares; 32 percent use other agency employees for that task; 20 percent contract with security firms; and 12 percent use internal supervisors to oversee contract employees.
The report said UTA's overall fare evasion rate Â based on tickets issues per riders checked is about 2.5 percent, slightly under the 2.7 percent average reported among 11 other agencies.
UTA figures it is losing about $422,000 a year on unpaid fares. However, it says it collects about $210,000 a year in fines.
Goeres told board members that UTA saw some ways that could improve fare collection based on what other agencies are doing, including using train hosts as fare inspectors; using more efficient software to write tickets; using more cameras; and writing more tickets and fewer warnings.
Services • As he heard the report findings, Walker Â said the board should consider more than just cost.
He said he and other UTA officials visited the Los Angles Metro transit system, which contracts with the Los Angeles County Sheriff for services. He said the arrangement gives LA Metro full access to emergency services such as SWAT and specialty teams along with better training, equipment and enhanced buying power.
"They probably have as good of police protection as you can get in the world," Walker said. "I think it's definitely worth looking at.... It's not all about money."
He and other board members have said the Unified Police Department has expressed interest in bidding to take over UTA policing.
The push to look at possibly abolishing the UTA police also came after an audit criticized several officers for drinking Â and possible intoxication Â while on assignment at President Barack Obama's first inauguration. (Read the entire report here: http://bit.ly/ttImA9.) The study noted that no civil suits have been filed against UTA Police in the past decade for misconduct, after UTA switched away from contracts with a security firm because of discipline and weapons concerns.
UTA Police this week was one of 16 transit police agencies given the "Gold Standard Award" by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration for meeting high standards in security plans, training, drills, public outreach efforts and background check programs.