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King County Metro Police Strives to Create a Safe, Fair Environment for all Riders

King County Metro Police operates as a division of the King County Sheriff’s Office. At its helm is Metro Transit Police Chief Lisa Mulligan, a 25-year veteran of the sheriff’s office.

“I progressed through the ranks, and after I spent a long time in training positions, a long time in patrol positions and just made my way through the ranks. About six years ago I was promoted to captain and spent a couple years in a precinct before I came to transit,” Mulligan explains. Mulligan has been in the Metro Transit Police department for four years.

King County Metro Police has two divisions, Operations Patrol and Administrative – where detectives and specialty units work. “We are King County Sheriff’s officers; every one of us is either a ranking member or a deputy of the sheriff’s office, and we are just assigned to this contract and we provide policing services for the bus system,” Mulligan says.

Trouble Areas

One of the main issues the King County Metro Police is battling is lowering the number of operator assaults that occur on Metro’s buses. Fare enforcement is another one of the agency’s large areas of focus. “Fare enforcement is a big issue for us, trying to get our arms around how do we enforce fare better and how do we support our security officers who are doing fare enforcement on a couple of our rapid ride lines,” Mulligan says.

“A new one on the horizon is we have a ride-free area that has historically been an area of our downtown Seattle core that’s been ride-free, no one pays, and that is going away. So we’re, as an agency and as a police agency, trying to wrap our arms around what does that mean to each of us in our own rights and how do we deal with it and policing will be part of that.”

The change to the free-ride area goes into effect in the fall of 2012. Currently the transit police and Metro are trying to determine just how this will affect all involved and what adjustments will need to be made. “It goes right into the topic of fare enforcement and now that we’re going to need to enforce fare in an area that we hadn’t done that before what does it change, what does it look like and how do we do it with the recourses we have?,” says Mulligan. “It’s a resource discussion at this point. I think we have a pretty good idea of how we’ll do it, but it’s a question of how will we do it effectively with the resources we have and so it’s just an ongoing discussion.”

Suspension Policy

Back in 2003, King County Metro Police created a suspension policy that would make it possible for transit police to suspend individuals from riding the bus if they were found to be in violation of rules or behaving in a way that causes fear among other passengers, Mulligan explains. Prior to this policy, the transit police trespassed people from metro properties and buses based on officer discretion at the time.

“Two things were going on, one was that we felt that it was important to acknowledge the fact that riding buses is a privilege — it’s not a right it’s a privilege. That is a really important one, and that we want to keep people riding buses if they are going to ride right,” Mulligan says. “If they ride within the rules and if they behave in a way that doesn’t frighten or hurt other people, we want to do everything we can to ensure that they can ride a bus; but if they are behaving in a way that is criminal or makes people afraid or is just considered outside the bounds of what is good conduct while riding a bus that we would want to have the ability to keep them from riding buses.”

Back when this policy was being implemented, there was a movement to reduce certain laws from misdemeanors to infractions, which Mulligan says gave them less ability to handle a problem in the moment.

“Handling a problem in the moment is a pretty important thing, so everybody that was involved in this process got their brains together and said what can we do to have an immediate impact on behavior and at the same time ensure that people’s privilege to ride the bus is allowed and offered them in the event that they are riding in a way that is appropriate,” she says.

At the time, they were moving to lower drinking in a shelter from a misdemeanor to an infraction. "It sort of raised some eyebrows and people were saying if we do that, then we don’t have the ability to necessarily remove people and take them out of that situation. But if we had something like a suspension policy that was tied to a criminal behavior, then we could remove them from that situation and have an immediate impact on the behavior. The whole purpose was to ensure that we had some kind of tool to keep bus drivers and bus passengers, the riding public, safe; that was the bottom line to give us the tools to keep people safe,” explains Mulligan.

If a King County Metro Police officer finds someone who is committing a violation of the code of conduct or a state law related to riding transit, they charge the individual with the crime while also issuing a suspension notice. Mulligan says that suspension notices have varying degrees of time that an individual is suspended from the coaches based on the severity of the violation — the greater the violation, the greater the suspension.

“We issue them that notice, they get due process and come to a hearing and appeal it if they choose to. We have rider contracts where if they have to ride the bus even though they behaved badly that we can put some boundaries around how they ride and when they ride. Then if we find them in violation of either of those, either the suspension notice itself or rider contract, then we can arrest them for trespassing,” Mulligan explains.

Mulligan says they don’t burden the operators with enforcement of the suspension policy so they can focus on their job responsibilities. “It's the position of the transit agency that the operators really should just be driving and not be the lookout for the police,” she says.

“So if we run across them, which we do, we frequently run across people who are suspended who are riding coaches, we feel like that’s our responsibility and feel like we should let the bus drivers focus on what their job is. That keeps them out of trouble as well; sometimes we have assaults attached to things like that when metro employees are pointing out people who are problem people. We do the best we can to separate them; it’s not a fail-proof system.”