"Gaps and vulnerabilities." An "antiquated and unclear mission." "Crime going under-addressed." "Extraordinarily low" arrests.
The flaws in the Metra Police Department go on and on, a consultants' report released Wednesday states. As a BNSF Line user, it caught my attention. Then, I came to page 24. which explained that Union Pacific and BNSF lines have their own police.
Better than 'Downton Abbey'?Fascinated by potholes? Got time on your hands? Then, Chicago's got a website for you. The city is debuting a Pothole Tracker website that allows people to check the status of repairs with mapping data. Crews have fixed more than 50,000 so far in 2014. Grab some popcorn and check out www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/cdot/dataset/potholetracker.html.
Whew! I'm covered by the BNSF police. Whoever they are. But what about the rest of the ridership?
Should they demand an expanded unit with a cop on every train?
Or does the dismal news require a totally new approach? One refrain I've heard recently is -- does Metra need a police force?
Maybe the answer to the police dilemma lies somewhere in between the two extremes. But my next question is: After months of secrecy surrounding the report, will the debate will be carried out in public by the Metra board?
"The discussion of 'what do we want our police department to be when it grows up' can and should be done in public," Director Jack Schaffer of Cary said.
Consider the following:
• Metra has budgeted $15 million for its police force in 2014. That police force handles the Milwaukee District West and North lines, the North Central Service, the Heritage Corridor, Southwest Service, Rock Island District and Electric District. It consists of 105 employees.
• Concerning the other routes with their own police force -- BNSF and UP's North, West and Northwest lines comprise 41 percent of Metra trains and 55 percent of Metra passengers.
• Not every transit agency has a police force. Metrolink, which serves the Los Angeles region, contracts with the local sheriff's department. However, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit District operate their own police departments.
Here are a few more take-aways from the 114-page police assessment by consultants Hillard Heintze:
• From January 2012 through November 2012, the Metra Police Department reported 227 serious offenses, which doesn't match officers' comments that "portions of the network were very dangerous and that crime and disorder are common on the trains and at Metra facilities," the consultants stated.
• For those 227 reported crimes, there were only 13 arrests, a figure that is "remarkably low," the report indicated.
• Among the crimes were 33 robberies with four arrests; 12 aggravated assaults/batteries and three arrests; two burglaries, no arrests; 173 thefts, six arrests; six motor vehicle thefts, no arrests; one arson, no arrests.
• One reason for the discrepancy between reported crimes and actual occurrences may be that when people call 911 to report a crime on Metra, they're typically routed to a local police department. When local police handle such calls, they often won't show up on Metra's records.
Meanwhile, the cost of Hillard Heintze providing an interim police chief and continuing to advise Metra over the next two months is another $100,000.
So does Metra need its own PD?
"I've asked that question myself," Acting Chairman Jack Partelow of Naperville said. "I think the answer is yes and we may go to an expanded one." But he added that the board will review multiple options, including contracting out services.
Transit police have a hybrid role: protecting passengers and ensuring the security of valuable property and equipment that if tampered with can cause delays or worse.
For board Director Martin Oberman of Chicago, there's no question that it is "our obligation to protect our passengers and our property." But there are fundamental questions to be asked about "the scope of the police, how much do we do with our own police, how much do we do with other resources, how much will all of that cost and who pays for it?"
While operational problems pointed out in the report should be left to the acting police chief, "there is a role for the board" in setting overall policy, Director John Zediker of Naperville said. "Everything should be on the table."
As for a cop on every train, that's not realistic, some think. "We have 700 trains a day, 11 lines, 254 stations, who are we kidding?" Schaffer said.
So what do you think? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @dhintransit.
You should know
Cuts to the federal transit benefit program kicked in this month but some lawmakers are seeking to reverse that move. The program, offered through employers, gives commuters a chance to pay for transit with pretax dollars. It was reduced from $245 to $125 Jan. 1. But at an event at the Schaumburg Metra station Friday, Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth said there's legislation in the works to get the full amount back.
"We have to make sure we convince the members who represent more rural communities to get them to support it or at least not oppose it," Duckworth said. "More and more people are using transit, it's not just people in the city and suburbs."
Reader Susan Dwyer jumped in on the conversation about how to keep rodents from nesting under your car's hood. Her solution? "Shotgun Repels -- All Animal Repellent. It's a blend of ingredients that causes a mild irritation to the animal's nasal passages," Dwyer wrote. "Nothing else worked for us and believe me -- we tried everything. Everything is natural and it won't hurt the animals, just makes them go away."
The House Mass Transit Committee holds a hearing on Ventra, Metra's handling of the weather and other outrages du jour at 10 a.m. today at the Michael Bilandic Building, 160 N. LaSalle St., Chicago. Should be a lively one.
Speaking of, Metra is reminding commuters that the cold weather is likely to cause delays today. Trains will be operating at reduced speed, if necessary, to reduce stress on the rails, and boarding is expected to be slower due to the low temperatures, so passengers should allow extra time, Metra said.