Milwaukee's transit guards spend little time on buses

March 6, 2009
Contract expected 85% of guards' time on buses, but guards spend less than 3% of time there

A firm that is paid more than $1 million annually to provide security for the Milwaukee County Transit System has its guards spend less than 3% of their time riding buses, a fraction of the 85% rate called for in its contract.

Instead, most of the bus security officers spent much of their workdays riding in pairs in vans, patrolling throughout the county, according to a county audit released Wednesday.

"Very little time is spent actually riding buses," the audit said. Most of those rides were only a few blocks in length.

The audit underscores criticism leveled by Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. against Wackenhut Corp., which has provided bus security for Milwaukee County Transit System buses since 1993. Clarke's complaints that Wackenhut spent too little time on buses prompted county officials to order the audit a year ago.

The audit found that a separate firm that manages the transit system for the county didn't expect Wackenhut officers to spend the vast majority of their time riding buses, despite the contract provision. By consent of Milwaukee County Transit System officials, the security officers have emphasized patrolling and responding to calls for help from bus drivers, the audit said.

Auditors recommended that officers should spend more time riding buses and suggested abandoning the practice of having officers work in pairs.

In its formal response to the audit, transit system officials said it had already begun increasing the number of hours security officers spent on buses. They now spend about 30% of their workday riding buses, officials said.

Clarke said the figure should be far higher.

"It's a travesty," Clarke said. "The taxpayers aren't getting what they are paying for."

He'll urge transit system officials to have Wackenhut put a greater emphasis on having officers on buses, particularly from noon to 8 p.m., when most fights and assaults happen, the sheriff said.

Other security steps are important, too, such as sending security officers to areas where "large numbers of students transfer or problems are more likely to occur," said Anita Gulotta-Connelly, the bus system's managing director. She said the officers also can stay in touch with many bus drivers by monitoring key intersections.

The vehicle patrols by security officers are important because they permit rapid response to fights or other incidents on buses, she said in her response to the audit.

Transit system spokeswoman Jackie Janz said consideration would be given to having the officers work solo.

"Our security plan is always evolving," Janz said. System officials strive to find the right balance in how security resources are deployed, she said.

Cameras logging incidents

The installation of video cameras on buses has been an important security improvement, she said. Vivid footage from those cameras showing assaults on drivers and passengers and aired on local television also led to the audit request.

The audit found 3,216 calls for service by drivers - anything from fights to snowballs thrown at buses to rousting sleeping passengers - in 2008.

With 1.35 million bus trips and an average busload of 38, that translates to a 99.76% chance that passengers won't face any problems riding the bus, the audit said.

Other data included in the audit: 100 assaults on buses last year, the most over the past nine years. It also listed 1,229 disorderly conduct episodes; 24 robberies; 55 thefts; and two sexual assaults for 2008.

The bus drivers union would welcome an increased security presence on the buses, said Rick Bassler, vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998.

Union wants armed guards

Union leaders have repeatedly told Wackenhut executives and transit managers that they want more security officers on the buses, as well as armed sheriff's deputies and police officers, both uniformed and undercover, to provide a deterrent, Bassler said.

Even Guardian Angels volunteers in red berets helped in the last year, but drivers prefer sworn law enforcement officers because "when you've got someone on there with a gun (who) can arrest people, that's huge," he said.

The Sheriff's Department sends the union reports that show deputies are riding buses every day, often issuing tickets, following up with schools about problems with student riders and focusing their efforts on the most troublesome routes, Bassler said. It's not clear from those reports exactly how much time the Wackenhut officers are spending on buses, he said.

On another security issue, Bassler said bulletproof shields will soon be installed around drivers' seats on about 25 buses, something the union has long pressed for. Union representatives will work with transit managers to determine the routes where the shields can best be used, he said.

Wackenhut was paid $1.13 million last year for a staff of 30. That includes 20 security officers and 10 managers.

The audit found no problems with the way security officers dealt with minorities or issues of cultural diversity. County supervisors asked for that review based on some reported problems.

Wackenhut officials didn't return a phone call late Wednesday.

Copyright 2009, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.)

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