ONE Important Question

ONE Important Question

The Utah Transit Authority looked deep inside its Transit Police Department and liked what it saw.

ONE Important Question1The Utah transit authority board of trustees and senior Uta managament recently asked itself one important question, is its police department doing the best job it can for at the best cost to customers and taxpayers? To find the answer, it undertook a study of the different means of providing public safety services that transit agencies currently employ.

The study was conducted in early 2014 and the results presented to the board at its December meeting. The idea was to look at the effectiveness of maintaining a transit police force, whether it would be better and more cost effective to outsource the public safety function or whether it should create a kind of hybrid transit safety agency.

The study compared models and costs for eight different agencies. The models included providing public safety (policing) services by contracting with a private company or local police, use only in-house employees or a mix of in-house and local police agencies.

The comparable transit agencies evaluated, along with UTA, were L.A. Metro, Houston Metro, Portland TriMet, Denver RTD, Phoenix Valley Metro, Minneapolis Metro, Sacramento RTD and San Diego MTS. This was the right time to conduct such a study, as UTA has changed significantly since its early days. The agency has just finished its 2015 Frontlines rail build out program and opened 70 more miles of rail, almost doubling the previous amount of service area. UTA also is enjoying record ridership with more than 44 million boardings.

“The detailed review of public safety departments at other transit agencies in the study showed that UTA’s current method of providing safety, customer service, fare enforcement and law enforcement efforts are in keeping with industry standards,” said UTA Transit Police Chief Ross Larsen.

Just like UTA, a handful of other transit agencies (DARTDallas, MARTA-Atlanta, MBTA-Boston, Metro – Minneapolis, MTA-Baltimore, and SEPTA-Philadelphia, as examples) provide public safety with an in-house police department. By maintaining its own department of 60 post certified officers and 20 administrative employees, UTA is able to retain control of all of its many functions, while enjoying one of the lowest costs in the industry.

One thing to consider when even discussing the possibility of outsourcing public safety, is that UTA Transit Police also provides a customer service and fare control function that most police departments do not. The study found that UTA fare evasion rates are comparable or lower than the other agencies in the study. The comparisons to other transit systems showed that UTA has the lowest costs and expends the least amount of funds on their public safety and security efforts.

UTA currently conducts its public safety objectives focused on safety and security of the transit system. The agency relies on other local policing agencies to provide the majority of major law enforcement efforts currently on the system. These services provided by local municipalities include response and incident command at accidents, emergency response coordination, drug interdiction, specialized services such as SWAT teams, K-9 bomb detecting dogs, and enhanced detective services.

“This coordination with other agencies ensures that the resources are available when needed, but at the lowest overall cost to the citizens of the Wasatch Front. UTA transit police are also complementary to and augment local agencies when requested by those departments,” said UTA Chief Safety Officer Dave Goeres.

One key underlying fact reported in the study, is that regardless of the means of providing law enforcement (in addition to law and order on the system) each transit agency remains responsible for fare enforcement checking, compliance and citation issuing at a cost to the agency.

UTA learned at a session focused on public safety in the transit industry, at the APTA Rail Conference in June 2014, that several agencies (Los Angeles, Sacramento and Toronto) which currently pay local agencies to provide the law enforcement, are also considering constituting an in-house police department when the current contracts expire. The key findings from the review study are provided below.

Key Findings

SAFETY is the first priority in all reviewed transit agencies, with customer service being second in six of eight agencies. Fare enforcement and law enforcement are the next highest priorities. UTA senior management and the Board have made it clear that safety and customer service are the top priorities for Transit Police Officers. UTA patrons interviewed provided excellent reviews for the UTA Transit officers in customer service.

PROVIDING POLICING within a transit agency is not the same as policing activities within a municipality. The transit environment is unique. Visibility of uniformed officers on the system is a deterrent to crime, reduces fare evasion, makes patron safer and increases quality of life issues. A key principle for deployment is that of two-man teams for officer safety.

CONTROL IS RETAINED by having a transit police department as part of the organization. Different transit policing models have benefits and detractors to include control, response, coordination and cost. Each transit agency approaches law enforcement and security in a different manner. Regardless of the policing model, close coordination between the transit agency and all law enforcement is crucial to providing the level of law enforcement response to calls and security desired.

FARE ENFORCEMENT AND SECURITY remains a responsibility of the transit agency—either in-house, or contracted out—regardless of law enforcement models. All transit agencies, even if contracted, also have a Chief of Police or Director of Safety and management staff to coordinate and oversee security and law enforcement.

INCREASED FARE ENFORCEMENT should be considered. This can be accomplished by increased time on trains; the use of handheld technology solutions to more rapidly facilitate issuing citations; increased leverage of technology and cameras; different techniques (platform saturation, roving patrols); establishing quotas and by increasing fare inspector or code conformance staff.

COSTS FOR SERVICES and public safety department budgets vary widely between agencies. Reviewed agencies budgets vary from $5.8M to $82M per year. Law enforcement officer costs (fully loaded) range from $70,500 to $220,000 per officer.

LIABILITY is always a consideration in transit security. Though some financial costs could be transferred to contracted or local police, transit agency always remains accountable for the actions of its employees or agents, so negative reputation risks, accountability and potential costs will never be fully relinquished. UTA has had no civil rights violations or other major claims against its police department.

LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIALS HAVE PRAISE for UTA Transit Police, based on conversations with outside agencies. Though UTA Transit Police Department participates in Valley Police Alliance and other public safety meetings, the departments would welcome further opportunities for liaison and training.

COORDINATION WITH TSA and local response teams, and security evaluation of the systems are important in an overall security program. Security in a transit agency goes beyond just fare enforcement and law enforcement efforts.

Potential Enhancements

Though current practices are acceptable, and UTA provides a safe and secure system in an efficient and effective means for the UTA customers, the UTA Board study determined that there are several potential enhancements to improve the UTA public safety visibility on, and coverage of the system, to better meet the Board of Trustees goals. The additional areas of consideration include:

  • Increasing the customer service image of UTA with enhanced training for all police and staff as safety ambassadors and customer service representatives.
  • Reducing the rate of fare evasion by using existing staff and potentially new fare enforcement officers in house, part time, or contract out. Conduct a variety of enforcement techniques and efforts; increase coverage and visibility on the system, and the fine recovery efforts.
  • Improve efficiency of the department through enhanced the use of video and improved citation software.
  • Continue and enhanced cooperation, training and joint operations with local law enforcement agencies to benefit the relationships, effectiveness and knowledge of our area departments.