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UTA may look at other models for transit police

Published May 8, 2013 3:10 pm

Transit • Agency ponders money-saving move; its police department's annual budget is $5.8M.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Boston's transit agency has its own police department — its officers caught the Boston Marathon bombing suspect.

Miami hires a security company to police its trains and buses.

In Los Angeles, transit officials contract with the county sheriff's office for police services, while San Francisco uses a fairly simple memorandum of understanding with city police for enforcement.

The Utah Transit Authority may look at all four scenarios, according to the board member who has been pushing the agency to consider abolishing its 82-member police department — with an $5.8 million annual budget — to save money.

"Why do we want to be in the police business at all? Why incur the liability?" asked Troy Walker, who, in addition to his role at UTA, is a defense attorney and Draper councilman.

"I think our mission is to provide transit at the most cost effective way we can," he said. "I don't know that having a police department makes sense financially or fundamentally."

Other transit agencies nationally have wrestled with the same issue and decided to go in many different directions, says Greg Hull, director of operations, safety and security for the American Public Transportation Association.

"There is not any neat pattern," he said. "It really comes down to the local jurisdiction doing analysis about what fits its local needs."

About 15 transit agencies nationwide have their own police departments, including UTA, said Hull. Others include some big transit agencies in Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and some smaller ones in Sacramento, Calif., and Buffalo, N.Y.

Benefits • Hull said agencies with their own police "see a benefit in being able to have a transit force that is trained specifically in transit operations and transit policing" and helping customers navigate the systems. He says even agencies that contract for services usually agree that specialized training is needed for transit officers.

But some agencies that once had their own police departments decided to drop them to save money — as UTA is considering.

Metro in Los Angeles once had its own police force but decided instead to contract with the Los Angeles Police Department, which absorbed its old department, said Hull. Later still, he said, it decided to contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office.

"Through time, they refined the requirements, terms, conditions and performance requirements" and who could provide it at the best price, he said.

More complicated is the history of transit police protection that comes under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA, in the New York City metro area.

New York City's subway system once had its own police force, but "that was moved within the New York Police Department as a special transit division," Hull said. "It was felt organizationally and politically that met their needs."

But then MTA later formed its own police force for other agencies it oversees, such as suburban commuter rail lines including the Long Island Railroad.

"Another model you could look at is in Miami. Miami-Dade transit contracts with a private security company," Hull said. Transit agencies in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Orlando, Fla., and Milwaukee also contract with private companies.

"Then there are even other models where a transit agency simply has an understanding, sometimes formal and sometimes informal, where the local police department, as a matter of course," handles any policing, Hull said. City police — sometimes with formal memorandums of understanding and sometimes without — cover transit in places such as San Francisco, St. Louis and Chicago.

Looking at options • Walker says he would like UTA to look at the advantages and disadvantages of all those types of operations.

The Unified Police Department in Salt Lake County and the Utah Highway Patrol have expressed interest in bidding to take over UTA policing, Walker said. He would like to see if the agency can save money through their bigger buying power and training programs, and through combining administration.

"I also am not opposed to thinking outside the box and contracting with local policing agencies through which we pass and say to them, 'Listen, maybe we should contribute a little to your police budget and put another policeman on and let you take care of it,' " he said. "To me, that seems to be the one that makes the most sense."

UTA officials say they are happy to study other options but have concerns. Chief Safety Officer Dave Goeres, who oversees UTA police, told the board that officers' priority is customer service, including helping people navigate the system and feel safe. He said contracting with others may dilute that friendlier focus.

Walker said UTA staff is gathering data to allow possibly issuing a request for bids. The UTA board is expected to debate the idea more in coming months — and the issue is on the agenda of a committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

ldavidson@sltrib.com