It Pays to Be Plain

Posted on July 1, 2003 by Leslie Davis, executive editor

Whether capturing bank robbers or apprehending fare evaders, plainclothes police officers can be quite a presence on railcars and in stations. Mixing in with passengers, these enforcers may be most effective when it comes to spotting criminals who may be more prone to commit crimes if they do not see a police officer present. When it comes to crime prevention, uniformed police officers are still the way to go. But plainclothes officers are able to supplement enforcement, interact with passengers and witness occurrences that might not otherwise been seen. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) used to deploy plainclothes officers on a regular basis. That is, until Sept. 11. “They were very effective,” says BART Chief of Police Gary Gee. “But since Sept. 11 and the downward spiral of the economy in the Bay Area, I’ve disbanded that team and reassigned its officers to uniformed patrol.” Following the heightened security that came out of the events of Sept. 11, BART was spending $1 million per month on overtime in the police department alone, says Gee. Officers were often working 12-hour days, six days a week. Only using plainclothes teams when staffing permits or when there is a specific problem to address, such as drug sales at stations, has significantly cut down on overtime costs. BART does have detectives and a special enforcement team that are always in plain clothes on its trains and in stations. “So far, they’ve survived the budget knife,” Gee says. Those officers are commonly used in stations with ticket vending machines that accept credit cards. The officers keep an eye out for credit card thieves and suspicious behavior. During the occasional raising of the nation’s terror alert to orange, BART puts more uniformed officers on patrol in an attempt to bolster its visible presence. Despite the increase in security, Gee feels that agencies on the West Coast are not as vigilant as they could be when protecting themselves against future attacks. “In California, we don’t have the same awareness toward Sept. 11 as those on the East Coast,” he says. “We’re more complacent out here.” The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) also deploys plainclothes officers when specific complaints occur. While its bus division has a dedicated plainclothes team, its rail squad relies heavily on uniformed officers, says Officer Linda Foxwell. “Uniformed officers tend to divert criminal acts, and passengers feel safer,” she says. “The apprehension and enforcement aspects are a little easier with plainclothes officers. We believe in a uniformed police presence as a deterrent to crime and other behaviors.” Post-Sept. 11, customers also feel more assured if they see uniformed officers patrolling railcars and stations, says Foxwell, who has been on WMATA’s squad for more than 18 years and has done plainclothes work. In D.C., the agency’s plainclothes officers are often used to monitor in-town demonstrations to help gather intelligence. “They typically approach situations without being detected,” Foxwell says. “Detectives in casual clothes are used to interview individuals.” That is also handy when it comes to targeting pick pocketing, something that occurs often at WMATA’s parking lots. WMATA’s police officers are put into field training after attending its police academy. For plainclothes trainees, that means following a trainer currently working in casual clothes. Once the trainee attempts plainclothes patrolling, the trainer trails along to grade him or her and also provided back-up if necessary. Plainclothes officers are then assigned via a selection process after becoming uniformed officers. Element of surprise The ability to blend in with riders is what makes plainclothes police officers most appealing to transit agencies. “Uniformed officers are very effective, and no crime will occur when they are around,” BART’s Gee says. “But, without [visible] officers, things become fair game.” Things such as fare evasion, disorderly conduct and eating on trains, as well as auto theft at BART’s parking lots, are all more prone to occur when no officers are in sight. But with that element of surprise comes a passenger’s uncertainty that plainclothes cops are really who they say they are. “They look like any one of our customers,” WMATA’s Foxwell says. While this is effective for apprehending criminals, it’s not always safe for the plainclothes officer. “A person might not believe it’s a police officer because [the person] isn’t in uniform,” she says. To quickly identify themselves, plainclothes officers must carry certain insignias, and they do have weapons. This way, both passengers and uniformed police called to the scene are aware that a plainclothes officer is present. The right to know While passengers at most transit agencies are aware that the railcars they are riding are being patrolled by a uniformed presence, many may not be informed that plainclothes officers are also mingling among them. “We used to inform riders of the plainclothes officers, but now there is not as much marketing of the police,” Gee says. “Post-Sept. 11 marketing is aimed at engaging the riders.” By that he means that BART is looking to its customers to help it recognize and reduce crime. Emergency call boxes were placed in all parking lots to not only give riders a higher level of security, but to deter people from committing crimes. Gee says passengers also aren’t informed of plainclothes officers riding with them because he doesn’t want to make promises that he can’t keep. With 50 BART trains in service at 43 stations each day, only 30 or so officers are patrolling each shift, and they can’t be on all trains at once. To supplement its 215-strong police force, 80 civilian personnel were enlisted to help keep the system crime free. Off-duty cops from neighboring jurisdictions are able to ride BART’s system for free with the understanding that they will police the system if needed. What BART can’t patrol with its human resources it makes up for with technology. Surveillance cameras are placed in railcars as an extra precaution. Those are as good a deterrent as uniformed officers, Gee says. Prior to installation of the cameras, vandalism and graffiti were huge problems for the agency. Now, the service is 95% free of both and has adopted a zero tolerance policy when it comes to replacing equipment that has been vandalized. At WMATA, a poster campaign was created to show different aspects of the system’s security measures. One of those posters made it known that plainclothes officers are on the system. “We have 10,000 employees for Metro Rail, and each one is looking out for [passengers’] safety,” Foxwell says. “They all keep their eyes and ears open.” Uniforms the way to go John K. Joyce, chief of police at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA), is a strong advocate of using uniformed police officers. “We want to prevent things from happening,” he says. “Reacting to a criminal act is a failure.” The chances of a plainclothes officer being assaulted or a false claim being made against a non-uniformed officer are higher, Joyce says. If a disturbance occurs, a passenger assaulting a plainclothes officer can always use the excuse that he was just defending himself. Plainclothes officers are not normally deployed on the RTA’s trains unless there is a specific task or problem that needs to be addressed. That may include passenger harassment and other disorderly behaviors. “We use uniformed officers first and then we use plainclothes. They work in teams and take enforcement as needed,” he says. Officers patrol the RTA’s system every day, but where people cannot be deployed, technology is used. The agency has a state-of-the-art integrated security system to supplement its 83 patrol officers. “The chances of getting robbed on one of our trains is close to nil,” Joyce says. Following Sept. 11, the RTA shifted its heightened security to technology rather than manpower. “We integrated everything together,” Joyce says. Doing that helped increase the agency’s arrest rate and curtail robberies and assaults. Through a proactive program, RTA officers are not called to the scene of an incident but rather patrol certain areas based on previous occurrences. To complement their general assignments, officers are dispatched to certain areas and enter information about that area into a database. This approach creates fewer calls for the RTA because areas are already being watched, Joyce says. Part of being proactive involves having uniformed officers interact with passengers regularly. “Standing in uniform without talking to anyone does nothing,” he says. From bus to rail With its first rail line opening in 2004, the Houston Metro is preparing to integrate and upgrade its current system security. “We do plan on using plainclothes officers on our light rail,” says Chief of Police Tom Lambert. The agency has used both plainclothes and uniformed officers on its buses with great success for more than 20 years. When deciding how to dispatch plainclothes officers, the Metro considers what is taking place and if there are already officers in the vicinity. Metro’s rail line and its facilities are being designed with safety and security in mind, Lambert says. Once the rail line is constructed, its transit centers will be multimodal and may be seeing up to 25,000 people per day. The agency has its own dedicated police force of about 180 officers. “We’ve always communicated the use of uniformed and plainclothes officers on our system,” Lambert says. That has resulted in more than 90% of riders saying they feel safe on the Metro, according to marketing surveys conducted every three years.

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