Metro's Transit Police chief said yesterday that she is exploring whether to train officers in techniques for talking argumentative riders into complying with public conduct laws, after several arrests that she said have subjected officers to ridicule and misunderstanding.
In a letter sent last week to the system's 381 transit officers, Chief Polly Hanson described some of the negative reaction to the arrests of riders for eating or talking loudly in Metro stations.
She said she will study ways to keep verbal confrontations from escalating. Posters are being designed to alert customers to regulations banning food and drink inside the stations, Hanson said. She also said she is considering training sessions that would emphasize "verbal communications skills" that officers could employ in encouraging riders to follow their orders.
Hanson said transit officers are caught between public demands for a clean and orderly Metro system and public outrage over strict interpretations of the rules.
"I think people have been humiliated for doing their jobs and doing what they think customers are asking them to do," she said. "We heard at public hearings that people were dissatisfied with the eating and drinking they saw, and they wanted to see more enforcement. Officers perceive they are doing their jobs, and they are being overly criticized for what they are asked to do."
Hanson declined to provide a copy of her letter, saying it was an internal communication. She said it did not specifically mention any incidents or names. But the letter did refer to the news coverage that accompanied the arrest of several patrons who talked back to officers trying to warn them.
In August, a woman was handcuffed and jailed after a confrontation with a transit officer at Metro Center in Northwest Washington. The woman had popped the last bite of a PayDay candy bar into her mouth after the officer warned her not to eat in the station.
In September, a pregnant woman was pushed to the ground and handcuffed at the Wheaton Metro station after she argued with an officer who had told her to lower her voice while she spoke on a cell phone.
In 2000, Metro received nationwide publicity when a transit officer handcuffed a 12-year-old girl for eating a french fry on a subway platform.
"The communique shared things that have been in your newspaper about how they're perceived and misunderstood," Hanson said. "Rightly or wrongly, they're being perceived this way. . . . All we want to do is warn people and have them comply so we can avert some of the humiliation."
Some board members have complained to Metro officials that rigid enforcement of some laws is foolish and occasionally out of bounds.
Charles Deegan, the Prince George's County representative on Metro's governing board, wrote an e-mail to Hanson criticizing the decision to prosecute the "candy bar lady."
"Not only does it belittle the role of the transit police in the eyes of the public, but it adversely affects the image of [Metro] as a whole," he wrote. Later he concluded: "This is a no-win case. We look foolish if we win, and more foolish if we lose."
Deegan said additional training is needed to teach officers how to defuse potentially bellicose encounters with riders who consider the conduct rules nuisances that can be willfully ignored.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham, the District representative on the Metro board, said it is important to remember that transit officers put their lives in danger. Only this week, Graham said, he attended a memorial service for Marlon F. Morales, a transit officer who was fatally shot in 2001 after he confronted a fare evader.
Public reaction to the arrest of junk food munchers and cell phone yakkers has been divided, Graham said.
"Lots of people don't like loud cell phone users. They don't want anyone eating. They want a clean and orderly Metro system," he said. "And lot of others don't want this police reaction and question whether the amount of force used is excessive. It's about striking the right balance."
Graham said many Metro riders are unaware of the rules.
"If people know what we expect, they will be more likely to comply," he said. "I think we've not done enough in that area."
After customer complaints were aired at public hearings this year, Transit Police were encouraged to enforce public conduct rules. The rules reflect the "broken windows theory" of crime prevention, which contends that public disorder symbolized by minor but visible problems such as broken windows encourage more serious crime.
Transit Police policy is to issue a warning for minor violations that are not willful or repeated, and officers are encouraged to issue a summons or citation as an alternative to a full arrest.
According to statistics compiled by Transit Police, more than 600 people have been given warnings for eating and drinking in the Metro system this year, more than 125 have been issued citations and three have been locked up.