Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Should Sheriff Provide Security on Buses?

It would cost more and issue divides bus drivers and riders. No action taken on idea.

By - Jun 6th, 2019 12:10 pm
Milwaukee County Transit System

Milwaukee County Transit System

If the Milwaukee County Sheriff‘s office takes over security on Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) buses it will likely cost more money than current security, and the idea of having law enforcement officers on the buses is already facing criticism.

In January, the County Board passed a resolution asking the Sheriff’s office to study if and how it could provide security for the transit system. The resulting analysis — discussed at yesterday’s Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee meeting — was complicated: the sheriff’s office can and would provide security, but it will be significantly more expensive than the current security and would take some time to get up and running.

Security on the buses is a boiling issue for MCTS workers that’s only grown hotter since a bus driver was stabbed in May. The local Amalgamated Transit Union 998, which represents MCTS workers, has been full throated in their support of better security, preferably a force with arrest power, on the buses. The issue has become a part of the ongoing negotiations between the union and MCTS, as the president, James Macon, has said he won’t sign a contract that continues to leave security in the hands of MCTS. On top of that, Macon recently announced he will be advocating that bus drivers be allowed to carry concealed weapons for their own safety. He told the committee on Transportation, Public Works and Transit that he won’t scotch the proposal until security is improved on the buses.

ATU 998 and the Milwaukee Transit Riders Union both support sheriff’s deputies on the bus. Bus drivers say they are cussed out, spit on, hit with rocks, bottles, and trash, and sometimes physically assaulted, and that incidents requiring law enforcement involve a procedure with several layers of supervision. They say there are long lag times between calls to dispatch and security service being provided, even after physical assaults, and incidents where drivers want an incident report but none are filed.

But the idea of putting law enforcement officers on buses has become a cause for worry. Some attendees at a county committee meeting expressed their belief that their communities are already over-policed, and that having officers on the buses will pose a greater risk to passenger safety than not having them there.

When the Sheriff’s office studied the feasibility of a transit security force with the ability to issue citations and arrest, they found this would legally require sheriff’s deputies. And to properly maintain and operate a force of sheriff’s deputies running transit security, an entirely new division would need to be created within the Sheriff’s department.

Dan Boehm, MCTS managing director, said, “I believe we have a safe system.” He added that the question of whether to put the Sheriff in charge of transit security was a fiscal and policy decision that must come from the board.

Right now, Milwaukee County spends $1.5 million a year to contract for security services on the buses. If the Sheriff takes over and maintains staffing at the level of the current contractor, it will cost about $2.8 million. And if the Sheriff’s office creates a new division, as its analysis recommended, that would increase the annual cost of security on the buses to approximately $4.2 million.

Deputy Inspector Daniel Hughes, commander of the police services bureau in the office of the Sheriff, said: “In order to do it right you need to have a division, you need to have a command structure.”

Sup. Dan Sebring, who sponsored the resolution calling for the study, agreed with the reports assessment, and added, “There is no sense in going forward with simply taking over security duties. What we need on the buses is law enforcement.”

Right now, the private contractor has 34 individuals providing security. These Transit Security Officers, or TSO’s, are trained in de-escalation, Boehm said. And they provide security by riding routes with a high number of incidents, patrol and respond to calls for service, monitor intersections and bus stops and park and rides, among other tasks, according to the Sheriff’s report. But the general consensus of bus operators is that there are not enough of them, and they don’t have the power needed to provide adequate protection.

In meeting after meeting, bus operators have decried the impotence of the TSO. Macon called them “pepper spray cops” that had a difficult enough time protecting themselves, let alone operators or passengers.

A few drivers that were threatened by passengers with violence testified before the committee. Sherry Jones said she was threatened with being shot on a route she drives every day, being told by the passenger he would wait till she came back around and he would shoot her then. Another driver, Marcia Mobbs, was threatened with assault by a distraught passenger she was trying to help. Both women said they now feel fear when they come to work every day. “I don’t sometimes want to come to work, because I’m afraid of what I’m gonna encounter,” Mobbs said.

But a number of county residents spoke against having law enforcement on the buses. Sup. Marina Dimitrijevic said the stories of bus operators terrify her, but said: “What I hear, though, is actually one of the biggest issues affecting our community right now… that the perception of safety means something different for everyone in this community.” Dimitrijevic said the county should promote peace, “Not to continue to invest in law enforcement.”

Dimitrijevic mentioned a middle ground model, proffered by Macon, which would keep the transit security in place, but take it out of the hands of MCTS and give management to the Sheriff’s office. This idea stems from Macon’s contention that it is MCTS policy that is leading to the problems. A hybrid model was not studied by the Sheriff’s office as part of their report.

The report was placed on file by the committee. But moving forward with a proposal in one way or the other will be difficult, as divisions are already beginning to show. When Dmitrijevic spoke against law enforcement on the buses she received affirmations from some in the crowd, while a number of bus operators in the committee room stood up and walked out.

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