A Transit Police officer conducts a fare check at a Surrey SkyTrain station. The move to smart card payment will change the force's duties.

Transit Police still needed but role changing: CEO

SkyTrain gates, smart cards expected to shift officers' duties

TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis is defending the need to keep the Transit Police service even though a big part of the force’s job – enforcing fare payment – should all but vanish when fare gates and smart cards come to the transit system.

The officers that patrol SkyTrain and its stations issued nearly 31,000 tickets last year, mostly for fare evasion.

“There’s still going to be a need for a police presence on the system,” Jarvis said in an interview.

“Regardless of fare gates, you’ve got an element on the system and unwanted activities that require police resources.”

TransLink is spending $180 million to install fare gates in SkyTrain stations over the next year and introduce Compass smart cards to replace other payment methods in 2013.

But fare evaders will still find ways to board, Jarvis predicted, and fare checks will still be needed, though they’d be done electronically rather than checking paper tickets.

He agreed, however, fare check duties for officers should drop to a small fraction of what they perform today.

That has implications for the force’s ability to catch people guilty of more than just cheating TransLink.

Transit Police officers routinely run the names of fare cheaters they catch for outstanding warrants and arrest more than 450 wanted criminals each year that way.

With the end of conventional paper fare checks, those warrant arrests are also expected to plunge.

But Jarvis predicts officers will find other ways to detect the criminal element, such as enforcing laws against open liquor in public.

And he said the reduced emphasis on fare checks should allow the force to redeploy officers to other priorities such as the bus system, where Transit Police so far make few if any forays.

“I want more attention on other parts of the system, bus loops in particular,” Jarvis said, citing safety concerns at loops in downtown Langley, Coquitlam and North Vancouver.

There have been fresh calls for Transit Police to boost enforcement on buses after TransLink disclosed the amount of fare evasion on the buses has doubled from $2.4 million to $5.3 million over the last three years.

Bus drivers have also called for more Transit Police patrols to deter violent attacks against them.

There will also be an extra 11 kilometres of SkyTrain and five new stations to patrol once the Evergreen Line opens in 2016.

Transit Police duties include responding to violent crimes or robberies on the system, assisting vulnerable people and preventing graffiti.

They’re also supposed to watch for terrorists – the force has bomb-sniffing dogs and some officers trained in the use of portable X-ray scanners and other counter-terrorism methods.

Canadian Taxpayers Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman said the change in duties marks a good time to re-examine whether TransLink should have its own police.

Transit Police spend $29 million a year – funded mainly by TransLink fares, gas taxes and property tax – and the force’s budget is slated to rise to $35 million by 2014 and $42 million by 2021.

“You’ve got to take a look at whether there are cheaper ways to deliver this service,” Bateman said.

“The smart cards and fare gates change everything. You’ve got to take a step back now and look at what the long-term future of the program is.”

Bateman said it appears the force pays premium salaries, with 66 of its 167 officers earning more than $100,000 a year.

“That is very high,” he said. “Especially when a number of them are retired from other forces, so they’re collecting a pension already.”

He said policing SkyTrain should perhaps have been done with an integrated team of officers from existing forces rather than creating a new one.

SkyTrain also has a separate group of security staff.

Jarvis said he did not see any need for a review.

A new chief officer from Edmonton has now been hired, ending a more than one-year vacancy at the top since the police board fired the previous chief to change management styles.

The force is also preparing to move into a new headquarters building being built near Sapperton Station in New Westminster.

“That signals they’re going to be around for a bit,” SFU criminologist and policing expert Rob Gordon said.

He agrees the “prime ticketing function will disappear” and notes it’s unusual for transit agencies to have their own police.

Gordon said it would be logical to fold the Transit Police into a Metro regional police force, if one is ever created.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said the policing budget needs to be reined in.

But he said he doesn’t think fare gates are going to be as effective at keeping out cheats and criminals as many people think.

“There will still be people finding fraudulent ways to get rides,” he said. “It doesn’t change anything. The same people will be on the system that were before.”

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