Graham Kilmer

MCTS Makes Changes to Transit Security

MCTS, after union's repeated prodding, pursuing charges against people that assault bus drivers.

By - Jan 27th, 2023 10:10 am
A Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus from Gillig. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus from Gillig. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus operators have been saying for years that they are concerned about the safety and security afforded them both on and off the bus.

In September, MCTS released data on safety perceptions among both passengers and operators, prompting a discussion at a meeting of the county board’s Committee on Transportation and Transit about what the union felt was a failure to provide adequate safety and security for operators.

In November, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 leadership and bus operators once again showed up to the committee to express their dissatisfaction with the state of MCTS Security.

MCTS has implemented several policy changes and programs in the past year intended to improve safety and security on the buses. One regularly mentioned by transit officials is the new “Red Kite Program” that trains operators in de-escalation and conflict resolution. Brian Kading, director of safety, security and training, said the program was created specifically for MCTS, and that calls for assistance from operators that have taken the class have gone down.

The focus on de-escalation and conflict avoidance stems from the data MCTS has collected thus far, which indicates that fare evasions and extended riders represent the majority of calls for assistance.

Though, the operators have regularly criticized MCTS’s reliance on their data for assessing the security situation.

Michael Brown, ATU 998 vice president, has repeatedly explained at public meetings that most or many incidents are going unreported because drivers have lost confidence that MCTS will do something about the incident. On top of that, bus operators have repeatedly said that the private transit security officers (TSO) provided by Allied Universal are powerless because they have no authority to arrest or issue citations, have slow response times and are generally not there when needed.

Not following through on incidents where drivers have been assaulted is a problem that MCTS is now admitting. Only recently has the transit system begun following up with local police departments and the District Attorney’s office to bring charges against individuals that have assaulted bus drivers. MCTS has now established a program to track incidents where bus drivers are assaulted and hired a safety coordinator to interface with local police departments and the District Attorney’s office. Since it started, MCTS reports 11 people were charged with municipal citations and three were charged with state charges.

Donnell Shorter, ATU 998 president, said the union appreciates the  program and the new safety coordinator. “I think we actually have to have some teeth if we’re gonna make any progress in this,” Shorter said. Though it doesn’t change the fact, Shorter said, that the operators feel they need better security.

Fare Evasion

MCTS officials told supervisors at the Jan. 24 meeting of the transit committee that the transit system’s policy for drivers regarding fare evasion has been made explicitly clear, and that is that they should not enforce fare collection.

Also, for the first time in recent history, MCTS is trying to get data on fare evasion. But the data, ATU representatives said, will be flawed. A system for tracking when evasions occur has been installed on the buses, but Shorter and Brown have said that most drivers have to stand up out of their seats to use it. As such, they’re not going to be providing accurate data regarding where the evasions are occurring.

Given the transit system’s troubled fiscal future, Brown questioned why fare enforcement isn’t more of an issue for the transit system.

Data Collection

MCTS has begun installing QR codes on buses and in bus shelters. Riders can scan it with their phones and be directed to a rider survey. Dan Basile, MCTS chief operations officer, said the survey will allow riders to report bus stops where they feel unsafe or that need improvements like lighting. They can report even report things like buses that are too hot or too cold.

“Each department then will begin to look at what’s coming in that they need to address, we’ll develop a timeline for addressing those issues and measure how well responding to it,” Basile said. “And we’ll have a really, really good idea of what’s actually happening out there because it is such a big system.”

Law Enforcement On Buses

In late 2022, MCTS began discussing with the Milwaukee County Sheriff‘s Office (MCSO) how the two agencies could work together on the transit system’s security challenges. The MCSO requested a huge amount of data and information from MCTS to study the feasibility of using sheriff’s deputies to provide security for the transit system, Kading said.

Safety Committee

A new committee has been formed with equal membership for MCTS management and workers. It meets monthly and discusses safety and security issues from the previous month. It will also allow workers to discuss whether new safety and security initiatives are working.

Committee Chair Pleased With Progress

As chair of the committee, Supervisor Priscilla E. Coggs-Jones has presided over the recent discussions of transit security. In November, she urged MCTS to begin responding to the safety concerns of the operators. In January, she said there remains quite a bit of work yet to do on safety issues, but added that it appears the transit system is heading in a “great direction.”

She said the new data collection was an example of the transit system being proactive rather than reactive, and she added that the MCTS/ATU security committee was “brilliant.”

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