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Report calls Metra police force 'antiquated,' questions effectiveness

Tribune reporters

Metra operates an “antiquated” police department with excessive overtime, irrational staffing plans and officers who were not qualified to use firearms for more than two years, according to a blistering investigative report released Wednesday.

 The 114-page report paints an alarming portrait of law enforcement standards on the nation's second-largest commuter rail system as it details myriad concerns about the agency's training, counterterrorism efforts and commitment to passenger safety. It also raises questions about the effectiveness of a 105-member police force that averages less than one arrest per day.

 The Chicago-based security firm Hillard Heintze LLC finished the wide-ranging assessment of the police department months ago, but Metra officials refused to release it publicly as they struggled to recover from a patronage scandal that led to the resignation of half the board.

 After the Tribune obtained the report and raised questions about it, the agency released the document and hastily scheduled a news conference for Wednesday evening.

 Among the report's most troubling findings, investigators determined that the department had not undergone any firearms qualification training in more than two years. The discovery was so serious that Metra officials asked the security firm to immediately stop its overall assessment and instead oversee certification efforts for the agency's police officers.

 “Early in the assessment it became very clear that the department was deficient in many areas, including weapons qualification,” the report states.

 Under Illinois law, police officers must go through a recertification process each year. It's unclear if there are penalties for failing to meet the regulations. Metra officials said they did not know if any officer discharged a weapon during the noncompliant years.

 After learning about the report's findings from the Tribune, Larry Smith, deputy director of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, said his agency plans to conduct its own review of Metra's police department.

 Metra said Wednesday that it has begun to implement the report's 50 recommendations. It listed seven areas, including additional training and upgraded equipment, where it has taken steps so far.

 Metra interim Executive Director Don Orseno said the report was intended as a “road map” for the department.

 “We wanted to find out, are we doing the right thing?” Orseno said. “We want to make sure we're going in the right direction. That's why we brought in Hillard Heintze.”

 The report criticizes Metra's contribution to local homeland security efforts, saying the police department does not coordinate with other law enforcement agencies to ensure the best protection. The rail agency needs to take a more proactive role, the report states, particularly in light of recent terrorist incidents in London and Madrid.

 “There is little interaction between Metra and other agencies in the Chicago metropolitan area that address any significant crime control or counterterrorism efforts,” the report states. “The interaction of MPD officers with other law enforcement agencies is usually limited to determining which local or municipal jurisdiction will handle an accident involving a Metra train and a vehicle.”

 Metra commissioners approved spending $200,000 on the Hillard Heintze assessment at the urging of then-Deputy Director Alex Wiggins and then-CEO Alex Clifford in October 2012. Longtime board member Jack Schaffer opposed the move, calling it a “boondoggle” and saying he objected to paying the firm for a report that would undoubtedly suggest Metra spend more money, according to minutes from that meeting.

 The proposal eventually passed 10-2, with former board member Mike McCoy also opposing it.

 Wiggins said the assessment was “needed and warranted.”

 “I think the report is solid and begins to outline a path to truly make the department better,” he said.

 Wiggins, a former police officer in Seattle, was given administrative responsibility for the department in May, when Metra removed Sharon Austin from the post. Austin was a longtime Metra official and one of the last administrative holdovers from the Phil Pagano era. Pagano, the former executive director, took his life in 2010 as he was about to be fired for stealing money.

 Wiggins officially resigned from Metra on Jan. 18, he said Wednesday. He had been on leave since November, after losing out to Orseno as interim executive director.

 Clifford was ousted as CEO in June after alleging ongoing patronage practices at the agency.

 On Wednesday, Schaffer said board members had “no idea things were so bad” at the time the report was commissioned. “Clearly, there were some deficiencies in the department we have addressed and will still need to be addressed,” he said.

 Last week the agency hired former Chicago police Deputy Superintendent Harvey Radney as interim police chief. Radney is expected to serve for two months as part of a 60-day, $100,000 contract with Hillard Heintze, where he works as a senior adviser. The rail agency intends to hire a permanent police chief in keeping with one of the 50 recommendations listed in the assessment. Hillard Heintze will assist with the search, according to the contract.

 Metra's acting chairman, Jack Partelow, said Wednesday that the agency would depend on Radney to implement the report's recommendations.

 “We have a new guy in there — he's highly professional — looking at things,” Partelow said. “I'm not sure all those conditions (raised in the report) still exist.”

 Radney replaces longtime Chief James Sanford, who retired last week after 30 years with the agency.

 Asked why Metra kept Sanford on as department chief in view of these problems, Orseno said: “The report wasn't based on any one or two individuals. It was a culture that developed over decades.”

 Radney, meanwhile, faces a department rife with staffing issues and overtime headaches. The report states that the department has such illogical shift assignments that it often needs to pay officers overtime to work the busiest ridership times.

 According to the report, the department's minimal staffing levels were established to ensure there would be adequate resources in case layoffs occurred. It is not based on heaviest commute times or ridership data, investigators said.

 “There's no rational basis to justify the minimum levels,” the report states.

 As a result, the department pays unusually high amounts of overtime, including more than $2.4 million in 2012. The generally accepted standard for police overtime costs is 5 to 6 percent of the department's total budget, according to the report. Metra's overtime rate, however, is nearly 17 percent.

 Investigators also chastised Metra for not patrolling the trains they are charged with protecting. The rail agency operates more than 700 trains each day, covering more than 1,100 miles and 214 stations.

 “One of the most remarkable findings of our assessment was that Metra officers rarely ride trains,” the report states. “It was surprising to us that almost no one (in the department) indicated his or her job is to protect passengers. Several officers said they had not been on the trains while on duty in years.”

 The report recommended increasing on-train patrols, Orseno said. In prior years, police rode trains on an as-needed basis, but in 2013 police rode trains 3,400 times, he said.

 Hillard Heintze first briefed Metra's leadership on its findings in December 2012. The briefing focused on five troubling areas: the “antiquated and unclear mission” of the department; ineffective or nonexistent policies; lack of rational staffing and patrol plans; excessive overtime; and absence of training in critical areas, especially weapons.

 Metra received the report Aug. 28 but didn't publicly release the document earlier because it didn't have a full board of directors until just before the October board meeting.

 “We really wanted to get everybody on board … read it, and be fully informed,” Orseno said when asked about the delay.

 Metra's police department has “many elements of a solid foundation in place and a dedicated workforce,” said Arnette Heintze, the security firm's CEO.

 “But it also was clear that Metra needs to focus on steering its department from its original mandate of asset protection to focusing on passenger safety, crime prevention, homeland security and greater customer service to riders.”




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