Litterbugs, rowdy teenagers and fare beaters who try to slip through turnstiles face increased heat on Metro because of a new police squad designed to crack down on "quality of life" violations.
Polly Hanson, the new chief of Metro's Transit Police, launched the squad two weeks ago with the directive to attack disorder underground. "We want to be responsive to customer concerns," Hanson said. "Some of the behavior of juveniles and littering that wouldn't bother you on the street do concern people in an enclosed environment."
In the short time it has been operating, the squad has written 50 warnings for violations and issued 20 criminal citations for such activities as ticket scalping and possession of alcohol, according to Sgt. Ronald Pavlik Jr., who oversees the unit. Officers have made four arrests.
"We are very pleased with those results," a beaming Hanson said yesterday. "This group is highly motivated."
Members of the squad, whose exact number Hanson would divulge only as fewer than 12, are sent to trouble spots across the entire 103-mile rail system. Pavlik makes assignments each day after reviewing crime statistics for the previous 24 hours as well as complaints from the public and trends noticed by police supervisors.
One day, the squad may be dispatched to a downtown station to deal with a spike in pickpockets. The next day, it may be sent to suburban stations to handle a surge in eating and drinking on the platforms. Officers are dressed in uniform and plain clothes depending on the situation, Hanson said.
Creating a special squad to enforce Metro's laws against eating, drinking, radio playing, littering and smoking may seem like overkill for a police department that took a lot of public criticism after one officer handcuffed a 12-year-old girl caught eating a french fry in a station and another ticketed a disabled passenger who shouted expletives when he ran into a string of broken Metro elevators.
But before they hit the rails, members of the squad underwent new customer service training designed to teach officers to deal with the public and reduce tensions while enforcing laws. The six-hour training, which incorporates techniques that the Walt Disney Co. teaches its amusement park employees, will eventually be given to every Transit Police officer, Hanson said. "We have a responsibility to enforce the rules and regulations, but we can do that with humor and compassion," she said.
The squad adds to traditional beat officers who are responsible for patrolling several Metro stations during an eight-hour shift. Hanson said the new unit provides an extra layer of policing and a flexibility that is invaluable. "We have an ability to send folks out to address a specific problem that we didn't have before," she said.
Hanson was able to create the squad because her department gained 37 officers this year, raising its total to 357. In a climate of budget and job cuts at Metro, the Transit Police is the agency's only department that is growing and adding jobs. The department's $39 million budget is an increase over last year's $33.1 million.
Hanson wants to continue that growth. She is seeking money for 10 more officers in the budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
In addition to the roving squad, Hanson also is sending officers to stations during the morning and afternoon rush, pulling some from administrative jobs at Metro headquarters and placing them in the stations in uniform. The idea is to increase police visibility, she said.
"People want to see someone [in uniform]," she said. "Since September 11 and during the sniper [attacks] and after we have an alert, people just have a need to see officers."