Misconceptions and public perceptions
By Rebecca Peterson, Assistant Editor
For hundreds of thousands of people in the Lower Mainland, transit is a staple of everyday life. Whether by bus, by train, or even by boat, many of us rely on the system to get us to work, to school, to appointments, and home again safely. We also rely on a department of the BC police that deal specifically with criminal activity and safety concerns on our transit systems: The Transit Police.
The Metro Vancouver Transit Police are one of a kind in Canada; no other province has a police department specifically tied to transit. They are multi-jurisdictional and cross many municipalities, and according to their website, “are proud to work in partnership with jurisdictional police, TransLink, and other transit community partners.”
Reviews of Transit Police behaviour have run the gamut from positive to negative; however, the waters become muddied very quickly when you take into consideration the ease with which Transit Police can become confused with other figures of authority on TransLink-owned systems.
Anne Drennan, spokesperson for the Metro Vancouver Transit Police, clarified who the Transit Police are and what their role is. Right from the top, Drennan was quick to point a common problem with how the media depicts Transit Police.
“We are not ‘TransLink Police,’” she said in a phone interview with the Other Press. “The majority of media get it mixed up all the time. It’s a police department that serves and protects our entire transit system. That includes all of the trains including the WestCoast Express, the SeaBus, and the buses. TransLink Security are not police officers—they don’t have powers of arrest, they don’t carry side arms, they aren’t trained at a police academy. They work specifically on and around buses, they don’t work on the train system, the SeaBus, anything like that, They’re specifically for buses. The uniforms look somewhat similar in that they’re both dark uniforms, but there are marked differences of course … If you look at them, their duty belts are very different in that they aren’t carrying side arms.
“Transit Police officers are fully certified police officers that train with all other municipal police officers at the Justice Institute of BC Police Academy, so they have exactly the same training as police officers and all the same powers of arrest, just as municipal police officers do.”
Many of the complaints received by our paper centered around fare disputes, so we asked if that’s part of a Transit Police officer’s job.
“That is an occasional part of it,” Drennan said. “Sometimes on trains, not too often on the train itself … but the majority of their time is spent responding to calls on the system.”
The questions asked on social media to collect stories from transit users specifically referred to Transit Police behaviour: However, because of the ease with which TransLink Security and SkyTrain Attendants can and have been confused for Transit Police, there is a possibility that some of the stories quoted in this article might be referring to people who were simply mistaken for Transit Police officers.
“I have personally never seen the transit police do anything fishy or negative,” said New Westminster resident Rosie Forst, in a Facebook comment. “I’ve heard stories that about 10 years ago they were really bad. Like cuffing people (my friend) for not having a ticket, etc. But honestly I haven’t encountered anything negative personally.”
“I guess I’ve been lucky, but I’ve been consciously impressed with the calm professional manner I’ve seen Transit Police deal with some very belligerent and erratic people,” said another responder on Facebook, James Hussen. “I’ve called them before when I’ve felt unsafe because of other passengers’ behaviour and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.”
Jeffrey Banggayan, President of the Douglas College Business Association, sent the Other Press feedback on Transit Police via e-mail.
Banggayan said he felt that Transit Police are effective, to an extent.
“Transit Police show up when the yellow strip is pushed (One instance was a drunk guy was … invading everyone’s personal space, someone pressed the wire and a supervisor was at the next stop followed by the transit police). I don’t see them catch many people evading ticket fees.
“I take the 319 to the SkyTrain pretty often and they are usually on that at least once a week. One experience that stands out is a guy tried tapping and his card didn’t have enough fare so he turned around and tried to leave. Before he got off the officer told him to load up the card at the station. Seems small, but it shows they are understanding and compassionate.”
We shared these stories with Drennan to get her take on the situations.
“Well, I’m glad to hear that some people feel that way,” said Drennan. “Our approach is to be as approachable as possible, we’re there to help people on the system in whatever way we can. We deal with a lot of persons on the system who have mental health issues, we deal with a lot of people who are drug users and suffering the effects of being high or withdrawing while using the system. And we deal with people on a daily basis from every walk of life, so again our focus is to help people whenever we can in whatever way we can.”
However, not everyone we talked to have had positive experiences with Transit Police.
“[I] literally watched a transit cop threaten to deport a young mother and separate her from her child,” said Emma van Tol, a former Douglas student, via Facebook. “He was very threatening and taunting. Obviously more aggressive than required for an unpaid fare.”
“I don’t think they’re effective at all, and I don’t think they should exist,” said Miko Janzen, a Lower Mainland resident, via Twitter. “I don’t understand why TransLink requires what is basically a private police force to do nothing but make sure people aren’t committing under $5 worth of theft. And even more I don’t understand why they need to be equipped with body armor and weapons including firearms to do that. They already have security guards and all local police still have jurisdiction on platforms and stations. It comes off as intimidation, and the fact that these people are paid pretty substantial salaries to make sure you’ve payed $2.85 is a bit of a kick in the teeth.”
Janzen also had a troubling story to tell from her own personal experience with the downside of Transit Police, which occurred a few years ago during her involvement with a local theatre group based in Vancouver.
“I got a text saying a 14-year-old member (of the cast) had been removed by Transit Police off the SkyTrain because they hadn’t bought a ticket at Stadium-Chinatown,” said Janzen. “So I went out, because the idea of a 14-year-old, separated from the group they were travelling with, trapped downtown at 10 p.m. on a Saturday because they had no way to get home and no cellphone to call for a ride honestly scared the shit out of me.
“Most of my interactions have been completely benign, but are always in the context of a much larger person in body armor with obvious weapons (why do they need guns) on their person hovering over me asking for proof I paid the $2.85 to be allowed on the train/bus. I don’t feel [in danger] necessarily, but definitely not safe because I know that they aren’t there to protect me, or keep transit safe. They’re there to make sure TransLink’s bottom line isn’t affected.”
We asked Drennan’s opinion on these more negative instances.
“Well, first of all, are you referring to incidents on buses?” asked Drennan. We explained that these were incidents that to our knowledge took place on SkyTrains and at SkyTrain stations. “I can tell you that all youths and minors are dealt with respect in regards to where they’re going, what they’re doing on the system, particularly if they’re alone, how they’re going to get home etc., so our general practice certainly is to assist those people when they have no other means of transportation. It isn’t a general practice to leave anybody that is a minor without means of transportation at any time, whether it be late at night or during the day.”
We brought up van Tol’s account again, and how she had witnessed an officer threaten a woman with deportation, and asked if Transit Police often received complaints about these kinds of threats.
“I’m not aware of that ever occurring—in fact, I find that very difficult to believe,” said Drennan. “We don’t ask people when we’re dealing with fare issues what their immigration status is. The only time we would ever get involved with that is if there’s a warrant on the system: An immigration warrant in the computer system indicating that they are arrest-able for an immigration offence, or if a person when we’re speaking to them gives us false information such as a false name, etc., and continues to do that for a period of time. If we’re unable—after exhausting every possibility—to determine who the person actually is, we may call Canada Customs—CBSA, Canada Border Security—we may call them to see if they are aware of who this person is but it’s not to check for status. So I find that very difficult to believe.”
We also asked Drennan how transit customers could make their concerns regarding Transit Police known.
“With respect to Transit Police and any problems with a Transit Police officer they should call … the Professional Standards Unit, or PSU, which was formally Internal Affairs.”
Drennan made it clear that Transit Police and TransLink affiliated security are two very different things—even if they are often mistaken for one another.
“It’s the most common misconception, I think,” said Drennan. “And it makes it difficult sometimes because I’ll take a lot of calls with respect to something that’s happened on a bus, and they’ll be referring to a Transit Police officer. And when I check into it I find that the issue has arisen with a transit security officer, or even—and this one is always somewhat surprising to me—say, a SkyTrain attendant, or a Canada Line attendant. Now their uniforms are very different from police officers but people still see them as people, persons in authority … With respect to situations that are there, sometimes whatever the complaint is borders on the criminal—not very often, but occasionally—and we will be called in as police to investigate. But we are quite separate from what would be known as TransLink.”
Unfortunately, Drennan noted, the assumption that all authority personnel on public transit are Transit Police may have a negative impact on the public’s view of their work.
“It is a lot of the time very frustrating, and I’m not suggesting for a second that transit security or any of the attendants on the various lines, etc.—that they are constantly involved in issues or problems, but with that number of people out there dealing with the public on a daily basis, millions of people a day, issues do arise and very often the issues do not involve us.”
We also asked Drennan for a statement on behalf of the Transit Police, going out to those who spoke to the Other Press about their experiences.
“I would like everyone to know that Transit Police officers are on the transit system to keep everyone who uses our system as safe as possible. There will be times where situations will arise that are criminally-based, and situations where people are made to feel very uncomfortable, where Transit Police officers are required to investigate,” she said. “Our focus is to keep you safe and to investigate as thoroughly as we can.”
Drennan noted that anyone who needs to contact the Transit Police has the choice to do so without calling 9-1-1.
“We have a text code: It’s 87.77.77. We have had this for approximately four years now and we find it’s an extremely successful way for anyone using any part of the transit system to get in touch with Transit Police in real time, in a very discrete manner. As you well know, people are texting all the time, so if something is going on around you, if someone is bothering you specifically or bothering somebody else that you can see, somebody is drunk and disorderly, somebody is ill, whatever the situation might be whether it makes you feel uncomfortable, or it’s putting somebody … at risk, you can text us and nobody will know that you’re actually making direct, real-time contact with the police. This allows us to deploy our officers as quickly as possible to your next stop, whether you’re on a train or a bus, so we can deal with the issue as quickly as we can, and resolve the issue as quickly as possible, so nobody is continuing to be uncomfortable or at risk.”
She also said that people can contact Transit Police for whatever issues they may be experiencing that are making them feel uncomfortable or unsafe—it does not have to be an emergency.
“I really want people to know that we’re there for them. There’s no call too small. If you get in touch with us we will deploy and investigate to the best of our ability. We will take you seriously when you tell us there’s a problem, and deal with it in the most professional manner we can.