CHICAGO
05/06/2013 01:55 pm ET

CTA Security Gamble: Agency Firing Private Security Guards For Own 'Customer-Service' Employees

Flickr: -Tripp-

This story is courtesy of the Better Government Association:

Transit agency is dumping most private security guards at L stops and hiring in-house “customer-service” employees in their place – but will the rails be safer?

The CTA says it has a way to make riding the L safer:

Get rid of most of its private security guards.

Spurred by a deal with a key labor union, the transit agency has begun replacing hundreds of contract security guards it now uses to patrol L and subway stops with full- and part-time CTA customer-service employees. CTA officials say the move will make stations safer by putting security responsibilities in the hands of workers trained especially to do the CTA work.

The customer-service workers "will have roughly the same amount of training as the private security personnel, but that training will be specific to the CTA," says agency spokesman Brian Steele.

The new workers will perform the same duties as the private security guards, according to Steele, and will be able to do other things, too – like retrieve items dropped on L tracks and help customers who are unfamiliar with ticket machines.

One difference, though: The CTA isn’t requiring its customer-service workers to get state security licenses – something the agency now requires under its private security guard contract with Securitas Security Services USA, and its minority subcontractor, Star Detective & Security Agency. The more-than-450 full-time CTA rail guards employed by those companies all are licensed through the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation, so they’re trained and screened under rules set by state law.

Not requiring that poses "a safety concern," says James Huckabee, vice president of Star Detective, especially in light of so-called wilding incidents in which groups of teenagers get off the L and attack or harass people, and the Boston Marathon bombings, in which bombs were place in backpacks.

"When you take away trained security personnel from anything, your risk of illegal activity and criminal activity goes higher," Huckabee says. "They’re asking the [customer-service employees] to tell people when the trains come. They’re not trained to watch for suspicious packages, terrorist activity, how to write a report for the police and get areas cordoned off" in case of an emergency.

A Securitas official also points to the company’s training and licensing.

"Securitas . . . and its officers are hired and licensed under state law," says Lynne Glovka, spokeswoman for the multinational company’s U.S. branch. "All state of Illinois training requirements are met [20 hours], plus an eight-hour, site-specific CTA-orientation training and an eight-hour anti-terrorism course are given."

Steele says the new customer-service workers are getting two days of security training as part of their seven-day training program, including "one day spent addressing CTA-specific safety, security and emergency-response procedures" and "one day dedicated to anti-terrorism and security."

He says about "20 percent" of the private security guards’ training covers subjects "not directly applicable to the CTA" – like parking-lot safety and Illinois’ criminal statutes.

The CTA now deploys the private security guards where it sees the most need, at low-traffic stations during off-peak and overnight hours, Steele says. If there are fewer than 60 customers entering or exiting a station during a 30-minute period, the private guards are assigned.

"Every hour currently worked by a Securitas [or Star] guard who works as a station attendant will be covered by the new CTA employees," Steele says.

Last year, the CTA paid Securitas $23 million under the security-guard contract, a small portion of which includes providing guards for CTA bus barns and other facilities that aren’t open to the public.

The Chicago Police Department has a transit unit as well. When the private security guards need the police, they call for help.

According to Glovka, Securitas and Star Detective will eliminate the 450-plus L and subway guard jobs once the switch to customer-service employees is completed.

The CTA plans to keep hiring outside security companies to provide guards working with dogs at train stops and has no plans to change that staffing.

Securitas is in the final year of a five-year contract that paid it $1.7 million last year for that canine work, also with Star as its subcontractor. The contract is up in July.

Besides keeping the canine guards, the CTA has installed $26 million worth of high-definition cameras at L and subway stations – a tool it didn’t have when Securitas was first hired in the late 1990s.

In February, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis found that crime at L stops was up 21 percent in 2012, but violent crime was down 30 percent. The most common offense – turnstile-jumping or other forms of fare evasion – soared by 41 percent, the analysis found.

The move to replace the 450-plus private security guards with CTA employees follows a Dec. 7 deal the agency reached with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308. The agreement calls for the CTA to employ a total of 240 full-time "customer service representatives" and nearly 700 new, part-time "customer-service assistants," each who can work up to 32 hours a week.

The CTA plans to have the new hires in place by mid-June. About 250 have been hired so far.

ATU Local 308 President Bob Kelly says he suggested dumping the private security guards. He says CTA officials told him the move could save several million dollars.

"Obviously it’s a substantial amount of money or they wouldn’t have agreed to it," Kelly says.

But Steele counters that "we are going to be essentially incurring the same costs."

As for safety and security, Kelly says "I’m not one bit concerned" about replacing the guards. He adds: "In fact, I think [security] will be heightened. What does a security guard do? Nothing. Stand there and watch the [fare-card] machines."

On a recent day on the Blue Line, one of the private security guards emerged from a station kiosk – the old ticket window – and helped a woman who was having trouble getting a suitcase through the turnstile.

"Here you go," he said, directing her from the regular turnstile to a larger one designed for wheelchair access.

The guard later talked to a reporter, disagreeing that the new CTA customer-service employees will be an improvement.

"We get more respect because we’re security," he said, declining to give his name. "They’re trying to [make us look] lesser than we are."

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth, and Chris Fusco of the Chicago Sun-Times. To reach them, email rherguth@bettergov.org or call (312) 821-9030.

Help the BGA shine a light on government and hold public officials accountable by becoming a member, contributor or tipster. Details at bettergov.org.

Photo by -Tripp- via Flickr.

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