Transit Police: Fighting the Fight On the Move

July 10, 2013

The Eno Center for Transportation is a neutral, non-partisan think-tank that promotes policy innovation and provides professional development opportunities across the career span of transportation professionals.

Pamela A. Shepherd, Senior Director for Communications at The ENO Center for Transportation, talks about the history, responsibilities, mobility and inter-agency coordination of Transit Police Departments country-wide. Shepherd goes on to mention the successful launch of the MBTA’s See Say app.

Below is the full article. Alternatively, you can click here to read it on the Eno Center for Transportation’s website.

While they often go unnoticed, there are moments when transit police officers are thrust into the spotlight. One of those days was April 19, the day Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) officer Richard Donohue nearly lost his life in a shoot-out with the accused Boston Marathon bombers. No one anticipated this sudden, violent episode, least of all Officer Donohue.

The horrific assault against Officer Donahue regrettably is one of the many grim realities transit officers face in performing their duties. While the number of successful terrorist attacks in this country fortunately has been few, U.S. citizens suffer from their share of crimes every day and a number of those happen on public transportation.

Transit police officers—specialized agents employed by a transit company or as a special unit of a local police force—investigate and stop crimes committed against passengers and transportation agencies. These crimes range from assault and trespassing to graffiti, drug dealing, vandalism, ticket fraud and most recently, theft of electronic devices such as phones and tablets. It is transit police who are on the front lines, keeping a watchful eye for commuters and tourists alike, ensuring safe passage to their various destinations.

Brief History of Transit Police
Transportation systems maintain a goal of both passenger and employee safety at all times. That goal is impossible to reach, however, without a police force in place to serve as a deterrent and law enforcement entity. The need for transit police emerged shortly after the installation of public transportation in this country. Evidence of passenger endangerment concerned transit companies as early as 1853. By 1869, the New York Times regularly reported transit crime-related stories, including pickpocketing, assault and theft.

Crimes committed on public transportation increased at such a rate that individual States empowered transit systems to hire their own security personnel. In 1901, Pennsylvania authorized members of the Street Railway Police “to severally possess and exercise all the powers of policemen in the county in which they shall be so authorized to act” (Pennsylvania Statues, Title 67, Chapter 2, Section 1371, et al, 1901). New Jersey followed in 1904 when it endowed street railways with the authority to hire transit officers with full police power (New Jersey Statues, 48:3-38, 1904) (Huerta, 1990). Transit incidents grew over the years but violent crimes were not considered a significant threat until the 1960s, when delinquency began to mirror the ongoing civil unrest of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. The public demanded increased protection on public transit and organizations (ibid), such as the MBTA, created their own police units when local police jurisdictions proved inadequate in suppressing criminal activity. It was during this time of social unrest that the primer for transit officers training was instituted, paving the way for today’s security system in public transportation.

Duties and Responsibilities
The primary mission of transit police is to ensure a secure environment for passengers and employees by safeguarding lives and property and discouraging violence and destruction of transportation facilities, allowing the public to ride in confidence and without fear. These requirements have produced a transit security system that is much more complex than what the public sees on the surface. According to, some key elements of this system that differentiate transit police agencies from their local police counterparts include: customer service, inter-agency collaboration, management and coordination of special events, and a homeland security focus.

Customer service
While all police agencies stress the importance of customer service, transit agencies are in the service business and interacting with and assisting passengers is a daily activity. Whether it is assisting tourists, disabled riders, or repeatedly answering questions about arrival and departure times, transit police are the public face of the system they represent.

“Officers are kind of ambassadors to our population and tourists. In fact, they cater a lot with directions and instructions. Being a transit police officer is all about being a good public servant,” explained Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Police Chief Ronald Pavlik.

One measure of customer service that reassures the public but often times is overlooked is the simple presence of a police force inside the system. Most of the time the visual presence of authority can deter criminal activity and calm passengers.

“The general public is looking for uniformed transit cops because they are a visible reassurance. Unfortunately there are many characterizations where passengers believe transit is a place to get robbed and pillaged, so there is unease when they enter subway stations. The presence of a police officer eases their minds,” observed Robert Lenehan, Deputy Chief of the MBTA Transit Police Department.

Inter-agency collaboration. Many transit systems crisscross jurisdictions, says, and in order to share resources and information, officers must be able to forge relationships with other agencies. Unit divisions can include SWAT teams, detectives, intelligence teams, school watches, terrorism and drug trafficking task forces, emergency responders, as well as other police units on the state and federal level. Some transit system officers, such as those who work for WMATA, have interactions with multiple state and federal jurisdictions as part of their daily operations.

“Safety is our number one priority and often times the lines blur and cross-pollenate in DC. We rely tremendously on conference calls with key stake holders (Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, DC police, fire departments, etc.) as they are day-to-day calls, not just for special events,” Chief Pavlik emphasized.

Management and coordination of special events
Most transit agencies serve large metropolitan areas, therefore the ability to move large numbers of people safely and efficiently is a key concern, notes. When preparing for high-profile events such as the presidential inauguration, rallies, protests, festivals, concerts, races, or professional sports, transit police work in conjunction with numerous state and federal agencies, often times preparing months ahead and in coordination with other agencies helps to ensure a smooth experience.

“At events such as the [Boston] marathon, there is a large multi-agency coordination center with all agencies including fire, EMS, police, state and federal representatives. There is a lot of coordination along with daily intel given via conference calls with lots of information sharing and back and forth with incidents over the past 24 hours,” Chief Lenehan said.

Homeland security focus
Because transit systems are considered “soft targets”—mass transaction areas with little or no military protection, making them nearly impossible to maintain 100 percent security—they will continue to be selected by certain types of criminals or terrorists. Understanding this has increased the emphasis on homeland security and protection of the country’s vital infrastructure. Throughout their shifts, transit officers look for activities that seem out of character for the area. They pay attention to anything that seems unusual and notice activities that do not appear normal; they check into anything that is out of the ordinary.

“Transit police are very mission focused and highly aware of their surroundings. Officers are aware that what might be suspicious elsewhere might not be suspicious here so they learn behaviors of riders and pick up on things that don’t seem right,” said Chief Lenehan.

WMATA agrees with this observation, noting that officers learn to be cognizant of personal items or behaviors that seem odd. Perhaps youth congregating on a platform for an extended period of time, someone wearing obvious off-season clothing, or out of place objects such as luggage and boxes appearing at random times. Officers also take note when passengers act strangely or take pictures of something peculiar, make notice of security cameras, or seem to be surveying the transit system’s operations. Officers “know it when they see it” as it is “something off the beaten path,” stated Chief Pavlik.

Transit Leads the Way in Vigilance
Following the 9/11 attacks, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and their advertising agency created the slogan If You See Something, Say Something™ which was posted on trains and buses throughout the city to raise public awareness of indicators of terrorism and terrorism-related crime, and to emphasize the importance of reporting suspicious activity to the proper local law enforcement authorities.

The tagline has been licensed by the MTA to more than 50 domestic and international transportation providers and government agencies for use in their own anti-terrorism campaigns, including the Department of Homeland Security which transformed it into a national public awareness campaign.

Calling them “modern caravan routes”, Jack F. Williams, Professor in the Middle East Institute and College of Law, Georgia State University and Terrorism and Homeland Security Advisor to various agencies within the U.S. government, said transportation systems have a history of being attacked making it even more important to prepare for the possibilities of future acts of violence and criminal activity. He believes the awareness campaigns created and used by transit systems are essential to re-enforcing alertness among passengers and system employees.

“Society cannot afford to delegate security to just cops… it is everyone’s job. [Passengers must] become more aware and look for unusual activity,” he said.

Given that it is virtually impossible to completely secure transit systems, campaigns such as this are essential to protecting the integrity of public transit. Former New Jersey Transit police chief Joseph Bober, now a principal at Homeland Defense Solutions, wrote in an email to CNN, “Educating these individuals through training, constant security awareness and providing proper channels to immediately report their suspicions” is key to safer public transportation.” In agreement with this sentiment, the MTA has concluded that “The vigilance of all New Yorkers has kept MTA buses, subways, and railroads safe.”

Citizen Awareness
Most Americans do not live their lives constantly thinking about or expecting terrorist attacks or other sorts of criminal violence; consequently, citizen vigilance is not as keen as it might be. Instead, most of us rely on others, such as transit police, to be vigilant for us. When asked why Americans often seem less aware of their surroundings than people in other countries, Professor Williams said it is a reflection of culture and training. Those who live in countries that are vulnerable and accustomed to attacks, he said, check their chairs and surroundings before sitting down and moving forward with their meal or journey.

“They are conditioned to be aware of their surroundings because they need to be,” he said. “U.S. citizens have not been exposed to such harsh realities. We have been mostly kept away from terroristic destruction and therefore do not pay close enough attention to our surroundings. We are taught to respect privacy and to mind our own business. We are taught not to get involved and to leave that kind of work to the professionals. We are also distracted with our phones and pads and are oblivious to our surroundings, which is not good.” Society must recognize that “each individual is part of the security net,” he cautioned.

Distraction is exactly what makes passengers good targets for any sort of criminal activity. Whether working, emailing, reading, or listening to music, distractions allow passengers to do something as simple as miss their stop or be shocked when their personal property is torn out of their hands.

“It is all about situation awareness,” Chief Pavlik said. “Passengers are so engrossed in their electronic devices that they forget their situation and take things for granted. The key is not to get complacent. We need to remind the public that [violence] can happen any day and we cannot take for granted just because it has not happened.”

“Passengers need to be aware of what they are showing to the world. The transit system is not a public library. Rather, riders are in some sort of urban system and have to be aware of their surroundings,” Chief Lenehan added.

While transportation officials know that the public will continue to use their electronic devices or be distracted with other items, they have created public awareness campaigns to remind passengers to be alert. Many, if not all, transportation agencies have employed MTA’s slogan and make adjustments as technology changes. Passengers are often encouraged to take their focus off phones or other devices through posters, public awareness announcements, brochures and other advertisements. Transit agencies, such as the MBTA, have also incorporated those same technologies to help defend against criminal activity.

MBTA is the first transit agency to employ a free See Say smartphone app, which allows riders to instantly report suspicious activity to police dispatch with photos text and incident location details. This real-time app has proved to be both popular and successful with system users.

“The app has been successful in several situations, stopping crimes in progress or allowing us to arrest people later,” Chief Lenehan said.

Two months after he was shot, Officer Donohue was released from the hospital and sent home to finish his recovery. He does not know when he will return to work, but according to the Boston Globe, Officer Donohue “hopes to return to his job as soon as he is medically able.” After the influx of calls from across the country the Department has received expressing their concern and well wishes, the MBTA wants nothing more than to see Officer Donohue back on the job. They know he will be even more vigilant than before and hope that his courage can serve as an example to all people to be alert, aware and prepared, while continuing to ride public transportation.


Crowdsourced Situational Awareness

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