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The Utah Transit Agency board is beginning to consider whether to abolish the agency's 11-year-old police department, and perhaps instead contract with another agency in hopes of both saving money and perhaps improving professionalism.
But UTA officials warned Wednesday that their police have duties that are quite different from a typical city police department from enforcing fares to helping riders figure out the transit system and chasing trespassers away from tracks that other agencies may not do as well, nor even want to try.
"The question fundamentally is why is a transit agency in the police business," board member Troy Walker told a meeting of the UTA board's Finance and Operations committee as he called for a review of contracting instead.
UTA has an 82-member police department, including 60 sworn officers, 18 security guards, and four administrative assistants. Its budget is $5.8 million a year, but that does not include all administrative costs shared by other divisions. Board members were told that officers each spend about four hours a day enforcing fares, and four hours on other patrol plus two hours handling paperwork.
Walker is also a defense attorney and a Draper City Council member, and said those roles taught him that improperly trained police can cost a lot of money in lawsuits. He added that transit officers who focus largely on such things as enforcing fares may not have the experience or training to handle more serious situations properly when they occur.
He also said UTA may also be able to attract "higher quality candidates" if they joined an agency that would do a wider variety of work, and shift officers to different types of duties.
But UTA Chief Safety Officer Dave Goeres who oversees the police department said UTA officers are fully trained and certified, and UTA attracts many officers with more than 20 years experience who have retired from other agencies and seek a slightly different type of work.
Goeres said UTA officers are taught that their top responsibility is "customer service," including helping people navigate the system and helping them feel safe, and not just catching violators. He said contracting with other agencies may make it difficult to continue that friendlier focus.
UTA General Manger Michael Allegra also noted that his agency attempted through the years to use people besides sworn police officers to enforce payment of fares "but we found it didn't work well." He said those who don't pay "often are bad people with other problems," and officers are needed.
Walker said contracting also could save UTA money by cutting administrative, training and purchasing costs. He was appointed to the board recently by Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, and Walker said she encouraged him to push for such a review because she and others are concerned about UTA debt, spending and costs.
"I'm not criticizing the job police are doing," Walker said. "But I think we need to take a hard look at the costs."
An audit conducted by the Cottonwood Police Department and released in 2011 criticized several officers for drinking and possible intoxication while on assignment at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. It repeatedly declined to make the audit public until Walker intervened.
The Tribune also fought to obtain police records from UTA on its crime enforcement activities, eventually winning a State Records Committee order for the agency to disclose the data. UTA has gone to court to fight the order.
Chris Bleak, chairman of the committee, said he would like to put out a request for proposals to any interested outside agency and also let the UTA Police make their best case to continue without contracting.
He said the board will continue to research whether that is a wise move before actually putting out such a request for proposals
Walker and Bleak said they have talked to Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, and he said his Unified Police Department would be interested in bidding for UTA policing. Allegra said the Utah Highway Patrol had actually bid to provide such services in 2002, but legal problems them prevented it from providing services at that time and UTA then started its own agency.
Goeres said that as recently as 2011, UTA hired an outside consultant to evaluate whether contracting with other could save money or improve service but so far UTA has continued to operate its own department.