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VTA App Allows Passengers to Discreetly Report Crime

Part of being located in the heart of Silicon Valley means transit riders demand more of their system when it comes to technology, especially when it comes to safety while riding the system.

And for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) that demand for technology coupled with safety came to light in the form of a smartphone app.

“We have a smart ridership, smart clientele and they practically demand current technology solutions,” said Mike Hursh, chief operating officer of VTA. “Certainly for us this seemed to be cutting edge.”

In 2012, the agency invited Elerts to make a presentation and develop an app for riders to allow them a way to report incidents or crimes in progress discreetly while riding the system. The concept was brought forward by transit safety Officer Mike Brill, who learned about what Elerts was doing while attending a hazard management seminar and learned of the work the company had done with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

“The discreetness is important,” Brill said. “You don’t want to draw attention to yourself.”

The agency did a soft rollout of its new VTAlerts app in May, which allows riders to report crimes, graffiti, vandalism or other incidents on the system discreetly. Users can even take pictures of the incidents and send them to officers, and the app takes the extra precaution of disabling the camera’s flash.

Those reporting a crime can do so anonymously while communicating with police while remaining anonymous.

Hursh said San Jose State University and the NFL have similar apps to send alerts about incidents, however, transit agency alerts are a little more complex to process given the alert location is always moving. The issue is further complicated by the fact VTA uses a combination of contracting with the Santa Clara County Sherriff’s Department and private security to patrol its lines so developers had to make sure the right person was available to answer any distress calls.

“In addition, we had the product enhanced so we have the ability to escalate or create a higher level of alert if it goes unresponsive for five minutes, Hursh said. “We asked for that…my biggest concern was that when someone uses it, we needed it to be responsive.”

Since the product rolled out about 600 people have downloaded VTAlerts, Hursh said, and 200 reports have been filed. VTA is overall a very safe system, Hursh said, but incidents of graffiti and broken glass that would otherwise go eight hours before getting reported, are now getting more immediate attention.

Users of the app will also get alerts from VTA as well as missing person’s reports and Amber Alerts in order to help police officers looking for a missing child.

Hursh said VTA hasn’t done estimates on how much crime could be impacted by the new app deployed to VTA users or if it will lead to ridership increases, but the app will be a valuable tool in keeping VTA riders safe moving forward, noting the extensive CCTV network on the system and law enforcement model.

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