Graham Kilmer

County May Study Security Officers for Buses

County committee unanimously approves study, will next go to full board.

By - Jan 24th, 2019 12:22 pm
Milwaukee County Transit System

Milwaukee County Transit System

Milwaukee County may soon start studying the feasibility of beefing up security on their buses after the committee on Transportation, Public Works and Transit unanimously approved a resolution Thursday calling for that. The resolution will ultimately need approval from the full county board. 

The study would look into creating a new classification of transit security officers — essentially, officers or sheriff’s deputies with the power of arrest on buses.

The resolution comes from Milwaukee County Supervisors Dan Sebring and Patti Logsdon. Sebring was previously behind a resolution, which failed, calling for stricter enforcement of fares, and Logsden was the only supporter he had in committee on that issue.

Sebring told the committee that the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) has a “serious problem” with security, and for the sake of bus drivers and passengers that encounter violence, he brought forward this resolution. “I think as everyone is aware we have a pretty serious problem with security on our transit system,” he said. “Drivers are assaulted routinely, and nothing seems to be done about it.”

But the resolution also specifically mentions fare evasion. And it makes clear that it wants the study to look into how a transit officer could respond to fare evasion. This creates a point of concern for supervisors like Marina Dimitrijevic who were part of shutting down an ordinance last fall that would have made bus drivers refuse service to riders who can’t pay the fare.

The feasibility study will look into how the county could create this classification of officers, to be overseen by the sheriff’s department. Currently, transit security is handled by a private operator, for which Milwaukee County pays roughly $1.6 million annually. Dan Boehm of MCTS, said “Our transit security team has largely been trained in de-escalation of nuisance issues and that’s the approach we find has been most successful thus far.” And according to Julie Schneider, director of safety, security and risk, when an incident on the bus does require law enforcement, the local police department in that location is called.

The resolution also gained the votes of Dimitrijevic and John Weishan, Jr., who previously voted down the fare enforcement ordinance. Dimitrijevic said she came to the meeting Wednesday intending not to support it, but said she was interested in what information the study will yield. She also noted the overwhelming majority of bus rides in Milwaukee County are safe. And with law enforcement on the buses, this could change the dynamic and experience for riders, especially those that can’t pay their fare, whom the county board has made clear they do not want punished.

For their part, Behm said MCTS supports and will fully cooperate with the study.

The study also has the support of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998. The ATU regularly advocates policy positions that protect the safety of its drivers. President James Macon spoke in favor of the study and some new form of transit security. He suggested the contract for the private security be taken out of MCTS’ hands entirely and transferred to the sheriff so all calls go through the sheriff’s department.

Macon said the current security is not respected by riders that are causing incidents on buses. These security are referred to as “pepper spray cops,” Macon said. They have little power to stop a violent situation, or even protect themselves, he said.

If the private security workers can’t protect themselves, Macon said, “they not gonna protect my drivers and that’s the main thing, the drivers and the passengers.”

Last fall, when the fare evasion ordinance came before the committee, Macon spoke against it, citing the danger bus drivers already face when trying to collect fares. In September, Macon wrote in a union newsletter that bus fares had become an issue central to driver safety and called for law enforcement protection. And he wrote, “Our hope is that everyone pays bus fare, as we hope every MCTS employee becomes a member of the union and pays his or her dues. Bus drivers are responsible to drive the bus. They need law enforcement for their protection. My advice to the bus drivers is, ‘Do not put your life or job on the line.’”

Michael Brown, a bus operator and member of the UTA executive board, agreed that riders do not respect the security workers. And, beyond that, when security is called it can take more than 20 minutes for them to reach the bus. And all the while, the bus driver is on the bus with the passenger, and once they arrive, the passenger is not removed from the bus. Rather, the security simply rides with the passenger to their stop, he said. This problem is going to continue “unless you remove them from the bus, give them some type of citation,” he said. “You’re putting the driver in danger and you’re putting the passenger in danger.”

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