Transit Police eyed as cost-saving target

TransLink cash crunch has some mayors considering cuts to police force that patrols Metro Vancouver transit system

Some Metro Vancouver mayors are willing to cut or eliminate the Transit Police service to redirect money to expand core bus service.

But others say chopping cops is a bad strategy to deal with TransLink’s cash crunch after voters defeated a 0.5 per cent sales tax for transit expansion.

“It’s worth looking at,” White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin said. “It is expensive. And quite frankly, I haven’t seen much benefit from it.”

Baldwin said what he has noticed is a precipitous drop in community shuttle service in White Rock, from 30-minute frequency to every hour.

He suggested the system could get by with attendants to conduct fare checks and assist passengers rather than much more costly armed police officers.

The Transit Police last year cost $34 million, $2.2 million higher than expected because a new collective agreement gave officers retroactive pay hikes to 2011.

That amount of money could fund a significant jump in regular bus service.

For comparison, it would have taken $59 million a year under the mayors’ plan to deliver the proposed 25 per cent lift in overall bus service, or $28 million per year to add the 11 new B-Line express bus routes that were proposed.

But any cut to Transit Police would also mean fewer police boots on the ground and more pressure on local detachments at a time when Surrey, in particular, is desperate to add more officers.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, vice-chair of the mayors’ council, said a couple of mayors have raised the idea of cutting the Transit Police but stressed it’s not one she is advocating. “I have no idea what that would do to the system,” she said.

The force has 167 sworn officers and another 67 civilian staff.

Port Moody Mayor Mike Clay fears front-line municipal police would be sucked away to patrol the new Evergreen Line through his city once it opens next year if the Transit Police were cut.

“That’s just a shell game to me,” Clay said. “Somebody’s going to have to do the policing, so you’re just moving money around.”

Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore said he’s not in a position to judge whether the policing service levels justify their cost, but added safety on the system is important.

“I know that before we had Transit Police there was a lot of concern in the community about the safety of the system, especially in evenings.”

Moore, Hepner and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson all met Transportation Minister Todd Stone last week to search for a solution to increase bus service and build new rapid transit lines.

But Moore described it as a preliminary discussion to ensure the province is a “willing partner” in finding a solution after the plebiscite outcome thwarted a quick expansion of the system.

Also getting an audience with Stone was Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, who pitched the minister for 30 minutes Tuesday on cuts to the Transit Police as part of a broader core review for TransLink.

The leader of the referendum No campaign said officers are highly paid but two-thirds of their files are ticketing fare evaders.

“They’re just glorified fare checkers,” Bateman said. “The idea is that you scrap the force, spend half the money and get twice as many transit security officers, while you sock away those savings to spend on something else.”

The force does more than check fares, highlighting in its annual report its efforts to catch sexual predators on transit, prevent bus driver assaults and manage major events when thousands of boozy revelers flood onto transit.

It’s also long been argued that fare checks help bust dangerous criminals who would otherwise roam the region undetected.

Last year, Transit Police arrested more than 960 criminals wanted under warrants by police elsewhere or for breaching court-ordered conditions.

Bateman said that argument should get weaker, assuming TransLink succeeds in fully activating its delayed Compass card payment system.

“Theoretically, when you add Compass card and the faregates are in operation, you’d assume that fare evasion on SkyTrain would drop fairly dramatically.”

TransLink interim CEO Doug Allen defended the force’s service as “excellent” but added he’s aware of concerns about the cost.

“We are constantly looking for ways to improve the service and extract efficiencies,” Allen said in an emailed statement. “The provision of police service will be subject to these tests, as will all transit services.”

SFU criminology professor Rob Gordon said he sees no chance of the province scrapping the Transit Police, adding it would not make sense to do so unless a new regional police force was being created.

Gordon argues the force has improved and is a logical way to cover the growing regional rapid transit network that crosses multiple municipal boundaries.

“I don’t think a scattered system of policing is going to serve that work very well.”

Transit Police 2014 Annual Report

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