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posted: 1/30/2014 4:22 PM

Metra police future needs public airing

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Metra was asking for it when it commissioned a report on its police force -- and you've got to give the beleaguered commuter rail agency credit for that.

The findings by consultant Hillard Heintze were startlingly bad: Officers rarely rode trains, weren't properly trained in many areas including handling firearms and didn't follow up on reports of crimes. The police force had an unclear mission, "remarkably low" arrest rates, "lack of rational staff and patrol plans," unreliable and old squad cars, virtually unlimited overtime and an absence of leadership.

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If there was ever a department crying out for a close look, the $15-million-a-year Metra police force is it, and it's commendable that the agency finally recognized that and took steps toward change.

But then the agency started falling back to its old ways.

Metra kept the report secret after it was completed last August, then released it last week at a hastily gathered news conference in the face of questions from reporters, including a Freedom of Information request from the Daily Herald.

Metra announced it had hired Hillard Heintze to provide an interim chief, search for a permanent chief and guide the department's transformation.

But the board did not publicly discuss other alternatives, and there's no sign the agency considered any.

We're having flashbacks to the departure of former Metra CEO Alex Clifford (who incidentally commissioned the Hillard Heintze report back in 2012). Clifford got a $718,000 severance package after the Metra staff and board failed to consider another alternative -- letting their insurer handle any costs of a possible Clifford lawsuit.

Most of that board has resigned, new directors were seated and a more open approach was promised. Here's a chance for Metra to show it means it.

While Hillard Heintze might well make vast improvements in the Metra police, as the company did in Schaumburg after a scandal there, other options ought to be on the table.

Those include doing away with the police force, since Metra and its riders effectively have lived without one for so long. Two commuter lines, Union Pacific and BNSF, have their own police.

The Metra board also should consider contracting out for police or security services in lieu of running a department. That's what CTA does, with Chicago Police handling most law enforcement -- an option that's admittedly more difficult in the patchwork of suburbs.

"The discussion of 'what do we want our police department to be when it grows up' can and should be done in public," Metra director Jack Schaffer of Cary told Daily Herald transportation writer Marni Pyke.

Given its recent history, Metra needs to be especially careful to make sure that happens.

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