DENVER — If the Regional Transportation District’s new police chief has his way, the transit police department will have tripled its roster by the end of the year.
Dr. Joel Fitzgerald, the chief hired to lead RTD in August, will float the staffing plan to the agency’s elected board during a committee hearing on Wednesday. It proposes increasing staffing from 22 officers now, to 70 by the end of 2023 and up to 140 by 2025.
It’s an ambitious goal in an era when law enforcement recruiting is difficult.
“Some might say unrealistic to a certain degree,” Fitzgerald said in an interview with 9NEWS on Monday. “I won't.”
“We've seen a tremendous increase in the amount of people that are applying. We are processing people, I'd say, at a pretty good clip,” he said.
Fitzgerald said traditionally RTD’s police department targeted hires with some police experience. Now, he said, the department is targeting potential employees who want to be police officers and offering to send them to the police academy for formal training.
“People that are willing to work in this transit environment and understand what you're going to deal with every day and want to do it,” the chief said. “And that means if we have to train you from being someone with no police experience, we'll do it.”
The growth of the department’s sworn officers would mean RTD would rely less on contracted security guards through Allied Universal. Fitzgerald’s plan would reduce these contracted security positions from 293 right now to 195 by 2025.
“It really boils down to respect and the amount of enforceability,” he said. “It's great to have a security guard and a security presence in our system. I think for what they're given our security folks do a fairly decent job. However, some things require a professional police response. We receive the type of training in de-escalation and other areas that are critical pinch points, I think we'd all agree, seeing what's happened over the last three years or so.”
In his first six months on the job, Fitzgerald helped oversee some changes at Union Station after complaints about open drug use and other crime at the agency’s bus terminal. Since then, the rate of crime there has decreased.
“We've made some changes in the system, in our critical hubs, from being more visible, and our Union Station environment, making sure that safety and security measures on trains and, and buses, actually, are visible to the passengers out there," Fitzgerald said. "We're not perfect. We don't claim to be. But we're making a concerted effort to increase that visibility.”
In fact, crime across the system is down, the chief said.
“That's a good thing,” Fitzgerald said. “However, we just can't be satisfied with driving some crime down. I think the objective is to make sure that everyone in the viewing audience understands we're really dedicated to working hard towards driving crime down and making it objectively noticeable.”
At the same time, the public’s perception seems to be that crime in the system is on the rise.
“You may see [criminal activity], but that doesn't mean that we're not dealing with it. It doesn't mean that we're not conscious and trying to make every effort to make the passenger experience or the customer experience the best.”
Fitzgerald has proposed a change to RTD’s code of conduct, adding provisions that will ban people from riding trains and buses all day without a destination. The code would also prohibit people loitering at RTD stations.
The changes have already met opposition from advocates for people experiencing homelessness, who say the changes are an effort to criminalize homelessness.
“I think there's a difference between being firm and fair and being a place that is ill-equipped to deal with some of the social problems that we're dealing with,” Fitzgerald said. “The transit environment is not the environment to deal with the problem of people being housed. It just isn't public transit.”
More of Fitzgerald’s interview with 9NEWS will air on Tuesday.
Have you had an incident on RTD lately or do you have a tip on this or any story? E-mail 9NEWS Reporter Steve Staeger at email@example.com.
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