News

More police wanted on buses

By ERICA JAHN

Staff writer

The officers who patrol the Metro buses fill a little-known division of the King County Sheriff’s Office. They don’t make the national headlines like the Green River Task Force and they’re not quite as ubiquitous as the patrol or traffic officers.

But their job is equally important to ensure public and driver safety on King County Metro buses, which traverse about 46 million miles a year and pick up about 300,000 passengers a day from almost 10,000 stops countywide, according to Metro.

Earlier this month, the Metropolitan King County Council approved a policy to increase safety on buses and in park-and-ride lots by potentially boosting the number of transit officers and spelling out in no uncertain terms the penalties for unruly behavior on the buses.

There are 18 infractions and 19 misdemeanors related to passenger conduct on buses, said Capt. Ted Stensland, a sheriff officer assigned to Metro. Misdemeanors include smoking, littering, harassing other passengers and urinating or defecating on buses — which Stensland said happens more than riders might think.

“If you get on any of the long routes and it doesn’t smell like urine in the back (of the bus), I’d be surprised,” he said.

The council approved the transit security policy after a year of officials talking to riders and drivers about their concerns with safety and security on Metro buses.

Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, who represents Federal Way, said he’s “talked to passengers and drivers alike about the levels of (security) service needs on various routes,” and ultimately decided the bus system needed more officers.

Metro’s transit police are sworn, commissioned sheriff officers assigned to patrol and respond to crimes on Metro buses and at bus stops and park-and-ride lots.

There are 27 officers — one major, one captain, five sergeants and 20 deputies.

Fare evasion is a big issue facing drivers, and one that frequently leads to angry passengers assaulting the driver, Stensland said. Irate riders have been known to throw cups of coffee or change at the driver and or to spit at the driver over fare disputes.

Metro officers patrol in uniform on the buses, in transit police cars or undercover.

“They could be wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sitting next to you one night,” Metro spokeswoman Linda Thielke said. “If there’s a certain route they’re having a problems with, maybe during a particular time of day, they’ll ride undercover.”

Undercover officers recently investigated a case in Bellevue in which a rider regularly got on the bus and racially harassed the operator. They tried to catch him in the act, “but if he saw police, he’d go to a different stop,” Stensland said. Finally, undercover deputies picked the driver up and drove around to various stops until they found the man and arrested him for racial intimidation and threats.

Undercover officers frequently bust narcotics sales on buses, Stensland said.

Other officers patrol the bus shelters and stops to ensure riders are safe from harassment or intimidation.

For example, Metro officers patrol the bus stops to make sure women waiting alone aren’t intimidated by men who think they’re prostitutes. The latter sometimes work at bus stops because they figure police won’t bother them if they think they’re riders, Stensland said.

“Any time you have a single woman at a bus stop, very often you’ll have a person, particularly a man, drive by and ask if they’re ‘dating,’” he said.

Police also monitor transients at bus stops, patrolling for aggressive panhandling to drug sales to drunkenness.

Given the wide range of Metro’s bus routes, the deputies “can be stretched kind of thin,” Thielke said.

Metro contracts with Seattle Police for about 300 off-duty officers to provide security on the buses in downtown Seattle. “The force can expand or contract as needed,” Thielke said.

The County Council’s action earlier this month will encourage transit police to reevaluate the balance of contracted off-duty Seattle officers with full-time county officers and could potentially allow for more county officers.

While Metro police stay busy, Stensland said actual incidents of serious crime appear to be decreasing.

“They still seem high, but that could be because of better reportage by operators,” he said. “The overall trend is away from serious crime.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn: 925-5565, ejahn@fedwaymirror.com

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