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Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012

Contrary to Media Hype, Data Show Buses Are Safe

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If you have been watching video footage of violence on the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) or are following the battle of wills between Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke over bus security, you'd think that Milwaukee buses are a dangerous place to be.

"Today, a ride on a Milwaukee County bus has become a frightening experience," the sheriff told a reporter after a few violent episodes occurred on or near buses in early December.

Clarke has recommended allowing drivers to carry "defensive weapons" or enclosing the driver's seating area to deter assaults.

But despite Clarke's alarmist statements, violent incidents on buses have been decreasing.

"There's increased attention to the incidents because videos were shown," said MCTS spokeswoman Jacqueline Janz.

The number of calls for help has actually decreased in recent years, Janz said.

In 2006, MCTS drivers made 4,023 calls for assistance. In 2010, they made 3,482 calls for help. In 2011, drivers made 3,600 calls as of Dec. 20.

According to a March 2009 audit of MCTS security conducted by the Milwaukee County Department of Audit, in 2008 "there was a 99.76% chance of taking an MCTS bus trip without incident."

Wackenhut Employees in Vans, Not on Buses

The chief and the sheriff have also butted heads on which unit of law enforcement should be responsible for patrolling the buses.

Flynn has said Milwaukee Police Department officers would spend more time patrolling buses; Clarke has questioned whether the police department can handle the increased workload.

Currently, incidents—ranging from sleeping passengers to unruly or violent fare-dodgers—are reported to MCTS's dispatcher, who assesses the call, Janz said.

If it's minor or nonviolent, the dispatcher contacts the private security contractor G4S Wackenhut; its employees do not have arrest powers. If the incident is more serious, the dispatcher contacts either the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office or a municipal police department, depending on the location or time of day.

Buses also have security cameras, silent alarms and covert microphones, Janz said.

Janz said that last year, as of Dec. 20, the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office responded to 152 calls while the Milwaukee Police Department responded to 384. Law enforcement from other municipalities responded to a handful of calls. G4S Wackenhut employees responded to more than 1,900 requests for help.

G4S Wackenhut has had a contract with MCTS since 1993, when the sheriff's patrol division stopped providing security on county buses due to budget constraints. Wackenhut won the $640,000 contract, which has been renewed through the years and now stands at $775,000.

According to the 2009 audit, Wackenhut's duties have changed over the years. Originally, the firm was hired because the county wanted more security personnel on the buses, and since the privatized employees would be paid less than sheriff's deputies for the same work, more of them could ride the buses.

According to Wackenhut's original contract proposal, "Eighty-five percent of an officer's time should be spent riding on a bus or assisting with a situation at the bus stop. ... The goal of placing more officers on the buses is a reduction of security incidents, especially those involving personal threats or property damage."

But within two years, the company shifted its strategy and began to deploy two-person teams of employees in vans, which would respond to calls for assistance and monitor MCTS facilities and Park & Ride lots. As a result, the audit found that 65.2% of the security officers' time was spent patrolling in vans and 15.9% was spent responding to incidents, which included the time spent riding to the scene of the incident.

Only 2.8% of a Wackenhut employee's time was spent riding buses, the auditors found, far short of the company's original goal of 85%.

"Bus rides by security officers are generally short, typically only a few blocks in length," the report noted.

The auditors recommended boosting the G4S Wackenhut employees' time spent patrolling buses. Janz said on Monday that the firm has complied with that suggestion.

"We certainly have G4S riding the buses more often," Janz said.

MCTS currently oversees the G4S Wackenhut contract.

Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan, vice chair of the county's Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee, said the board had attempted to give the sheriff oversight of the contract in the last budget deliberations. But, Weishan said, sensing that the sheriff lacked enthusiasm for this responsibility, the budget amendment was voted down.

The sheriff's department did not respond to a request to comment on MCTS security.