- Voice of San Diego - https://www.voiceofsandiego.org -

MTS Review Recommends Changes, But Stops Short of Sweeping Assessments

Transit officer Xavier Herrera checks for trolley tickets. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

After facing a reckoning over its enforcement practices, San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System is now digesting a review by outside experts that recommends more than 60 changes to the agency’s security operation, including bolstered data collection and the creation of a video retention policy.

For years, advocates and residents complained about the agency’s aggressive enforcement and a new slate of MTS board members in 2019 began pushing for change [1]. Then came nationwide calls for police reform and a series of Voice of San Diego stories that revealed that the agency’s fare evasion ticketing outpaced that of other agencies across the country, how MTS tickets could terrorize low-income riders [2] and how MTS enforcement disproportionately affected its Black riders [3].

MTS staff and its board responded with plans and discussions about how to lessen the burden of its enforcement, and shift its approach. The review, released to VOSD this week, is one of many steps MTS has taken over the last several months to respond to criticisms.

The report [4] also urges the agency to explore a program to improve MTS visibility and customer service, create a riders advisory committee to weigh in on MTS practices, better educate riders about its fare policies, evaluate possible unintended impacts of its new diversion program for fare evaders and consider an administrative citation process that keeps MTS tickets out of a court system that can tack on substantial fees and consequences for those who are ticketed.

MTS last year signed a $21,500 contract with industry group American Public Transportation Association that called for the association to assemble a group to evaluate the transit system’s security and enforcement practices amid a flurry of debate about the agency’s aggressive crackdown on fare evasion [5] and potential reforms to MTS’s security arm [1].

The 11-page report released to Voice of San Diego this week doesn’t make a sweeping assessment of MTS’s enforcement approach, but rather lists suggestions that reviewers made after a late October visit to San Diego. It also doesn’t assess the appropriateness of MTS’s dramatic increase in fare evasion ticketing in recent years or gauge how some San Diegans – including Black riders [3] and low-income people [2] – may have been disproportionately impacted by enforcement.

“The observations and recommendations in this report are intended to assist the San Diego MTS in following industry best practices for reimaging its fare enforcement and security program,” the four reviewers from the transportation association, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, Portland’s TriMet and St. Louis Metro Transit wrote in the report delivered to MTS in mid-December.

MTS spokesman Rob Schupp said the agency opted to release and publicly discuss the report nearly two months after MTS received it to allow time for its staff, new security chief and a committee of advocates, academics and transit riders assembled to review the analysis first.

MTS staff are set to present the report and their proposed next steps for implementing its suggestions at the agency’s board meeting [6] next Thursday. MTS officials on Wednesday shared the report with steering committee members who had provided feedback to the outside security experts before their visit to San Diego.

“MTS staff will take a deep dive over the next six weeks and develop an action plan for how we move forward with taking these recommendations and making them policies,” MTS Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher said during his Jan. 21 State of MTS speech [7].

MTS CEO Sharon Cooney said the agency has already begun working on some of the recommendations in the report and had already been considering some before the report dropped.

For example, Cooney said, MTS is beginning to review its security operating procedures as called for in the report and plans to propose the creation of a permanent riders advisory group to weigh in on MTS security policies, procedures and the data it should use to evaluate its security force.

“It’s just so clear that that will be helpful on all fronts, whether it’s in helping us to better understand how our passengers are navigating through the code compliance and how they’re dealing with the fares, to what they perceive to be the right data points,” Cooney said.

Cooney said MTS attorneys are also working on a draft policy to formalize a video retention policy and request process for video footage from body cameras and other cameras placed throughout MTS’s system. MTS asked reviewers to advise the agency on best practices for video footage after VOSD reported last year on gaps in the agency’s handling of footage [8] that kept an attorney from obtaining MTS body camera video to defend her client. The report highlighted MTS’s lack of a written or formalized video retention policy.

Cooney said MTS is also speaking with the San Diego Superior Court about how it might track the outcomes of tickets, including whether they are ultimately paid, and examine the return on investment from those citations. The report suggested MTS follow up on its tickets and also explore whether the pilot diversion program its board approved last year to lessen the burden of those tickets is having the impact MTS hoped.

The report authors wrote that the diversion program [9] has faced challenges. They also said a policy approved at the same time requiring MTS officers to allow those who can’t prove they have a fare to immediately deboard to buy a ticket may discourage some riders from paying for rides.

“While the program is new, from recent data and reports, it appears that few fare evaders take advantage of the program and that (code compliance officers) are reporting that individuals are learning that they won’t be cited and have not been complying with requests for compliance,” the reviewers wrote.

Cooney and San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, who chairs MTS’s public security committee, have said the agency should gather more data on the diversion program before making changes to it. Montgomery Steppe, who has championed security reform efforts at MTS and pushed to keep MTS tickets out of the court system, was not available for comment Thursday.

Going forward, Cooney and Fletcher said implementing the report’s guidance and refining the agency’s security approach will be top priorities for Al Stiehler, who last month took over [10] as MTS’s new director of transit security and passenger safety. Stiehler, who previously served as chief of field operations for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, replaced MTS security chief Manny Guaderrama [11], the architect behind the agency’s dramatic uptick in enforcement.

The report and Stiehler’s hiring are the latest steps in more than a year of discussions about potential reforms to MTS’s security approach and structure [1].

The agency now has a unique security force. As of last June, it had 64 code compliance inspectors employed by MTS who issue citations for transit system and quality-of-life violations, and about 140 private security guards who could not write tickets. Neither the code compliance inspectors nor the security guards are police officers, meaning they don’t undergo the same requirements to meet certification in California like a member of a local police or sheriff’s department would. Together they form teams that patrol stations, buses and trolleys.

Cooneyrequested the review to help inform MTS as its board and staff mull reforms. Among the possibilities raised were adding sworn police officers who could make arrests, ambassadors who could help riders navigate the system rather than write tickets and homeless outreach workers.

Those conversations also came amid the backdrop of intensifying conversations about police reform and MTS’s ongoing process to select a security contractor to supply the dozens of private security guards now a core piece of the agency’s security structure. The agency has since extended its agreement [12] with contractor Allied Universal through the end 2021 to allow MTS’s new security director to play a greater role in the process, and to conduct visits now complicated by coronavirus restrictions.

The report doesn’t specify which approach MTS should take but offers suggestions on all of the above.

For example, it urges MTS to consider partnerships with social service agencies to better aid homeless riders and address related quality-of-life issues and said MTS might pilot an expanded ambassador program beyond the one it has historically provided for special events to better serve its riders.

“The ambassadors could be outfitted in a distinct uniform, different from the (code compliance inspectors) and contract security guards; respond to customers’ requests for information; address concerns and answer questions; address safety and security issues; be trained in de-escalation; and observe, report and call for a contract guard or (code compliance inspector) when enforcement is needed,” the reviewers wrote.

The report is less specific about whether – and how – MTS might go about adding a sworn contingent of officers, and instead focuses on where MTS might train its hiring efforts.

“If MTS were to determine the need for dedicated law enforcement, the panel suggests that MTS consider personnel within the (code compliance inspector) ranks for conversion to a dedicated law enforcement team, considering their training and professionalism, knowledge of the transit environment and customer service skills,” the reviewers wrote.

Cooney said she believes MTS is still early in the process of determining the future structure of its security force.

Homeless advocate John Brady, who served on the steering committee that weighed in on the report and MTS security practices, commended MTS for pursuing the outside review but said he had hoped the report would delve more deeply into how MTS enforcement should look holistically – and the appropriateness of the enforcement approach it has taken in recent years that incited community outcry.

“This report largely focused on security operational issues and appeared to me to be written in an effort to support current practices as opposed to evaluating other alternatives,” Brady said. “It’s a good first step but I hope that where we’ll go with this is to more deeply look into the customer impacts of such aggressive security practices.”

Cooney and Fletcher have said MTS’s work to philosophically shift it security force from enforcement-oriented to service-oriented continues and said the agency intends to continue seeking community feedback as it makes its next moves.