Metro removing signs that contradict free-ride policy for plain-clothes officers


Several D.C. police detectives said Friday that they were suddenly denied the free transportation they had been getting for years. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
December 7, 2012

Metro plans to remove new signs at Metrorail stations that suggest that law enforcement officers are allowed to ride the system for free only if they are in uniform, officials said Friday.

The signs, which have been posted within the past two weeks, contradict a long-standing Metro policy that ensures free transportation for police in plain clothes, creating confusion among police officers and station managers.

Several D.C. police detectives said Friday that they were suddenly denied the free transportation they had been getting for years. They said Metro station managers pointed at the signs directed at law enforcement officers with the message: “Free transportation provided only when in official uniform.”

Metro’s policy indicates that “sworn non-uniformed police” are allowed free rides when presenting a WMATA-issued ID card. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the policy has been on the books since 1984, but also acknowledged that there is no such a thing as WMATA-issued ID. Station managers and bus drivers waive the Metro fare to officers without uniform who show their badge or police ID.

The agency is removing the signs to correct any confusion, said Stessel, also noting that Metro plans to talk to station managers about the policy.

John Paprcka, a D.C. police detective who uses Metro regularly to get to court, said he was told Monday at Judiciary Square that he no longer would get free rides.

“Quite honestly, I will not ride the Metro on duty if I have to pay for it. Why should I do that?” asked Paprcka, who has ridden the Red Line gratis for years and intervened when he witnessed disorderly conduct. “From what I understand [the transit police] chief is requesting additional resources from other law enforcement agencies, and then you turn around and they take this resource away.”

Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the D.C. Fraternal Order of Police labor committee, said several officers were under the impression that Metro had changed its policy.

The police union and some Metro union leaders said the signs contradicted the transit agency’s recent call for stronger ties with local law enforcement agencies to address crime at Metro.

Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn and D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier announced Monday at a public hearing in Southeast Washington that the city police would step up its presence in Metro buses and stations to help address safety concerns at Metro.

In a Wednesday memo to D.C. police, Lanier asked officers to be vigilant for criminal activity at Metro, and reminded them that officers may use Metro buses, free of charge.

“Metro welcomes and encourages on duty members to utilize this method of transportation, and I strongly recommend that you make use of it,” Lanier wrote in the memo.

On any given week, hundreds of D.C. police officers use Metro to attend court, pursue investigations and commute to and from work, said Baumann.

Several station managers in the District said the new signs were posted within the past two weeks. Some said they had been enforcing the message in the sign.

But some stations managers didn’t seem to know the policy. One said she thought that only uniformed officers were exempted from paying and that it was at the discretion of managers to let plainclothes officers ride for free.

“Anybody can show a badge,” she said. “It’s not fair. They got to be in uniform.”

Questioned about the policy, Stessel offered different explanations before backing away from the signs’ message.

“Nothing has changed in terms of our policy as it relates to law enforcement officers riding the system free,” he said Friday afternoon.

Gerry Garnett, assistant business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, said Metro staff members like to have the plainclothes officers.

“Even if they are in plain clothes, they still have their badge, they still have their gun, they have the power to make an arrest. So we actually like it because if something happens on the bus while they are there, then they will take an action to maybe prevent an assault or arrest someone who has committed a crime. I don’t know why they would change that policy,” he said.

Metro’s policy also gives free transportation to Metro employees, board members and officers, children younger than 5 and eligible MetroAccess customers.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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