Sacramento's light-rail system struggles to overcome its image problem, deal with fare-evaders

Union doesn’t want private security guards issuing citations to ticket-dodgers

A private security officer patrols a light-rail train on a recent weekday afternoon. Private security monitors light rail for safety but cannot write infraction tickets.

A private security officer patrols a light-rail train on a recent weekday afternoon. Private security monitors light rail for safety but cannot write infraction tickets.


Inside Sacramento Regional Transit’s command center, there is a room with more surveillance monitors than eyeballs.

Three private security guards in polos toggle their attention from multiple computer screens to a bank of televisions rowed across the front wall. Live feeds—angular street views of people pacing on platforms—flicker from set to set, station to station.

“It’s like flipping through cable,” observed Sacramento police Lt. Norm Leong, commander of Regional Transit Police Services, the unit responsible for maintaining security on the sometimes maligned public-transportation system.

In the past year, Leong said the hodgepodge team has made arrests in 57 percent of transit-related burglaries and thefts, which are down 25 percent year-to-date. “The issue isn’t safety,” he added. “The issue is: Do you feel safe riding and how can we make you feel safer?”

Funny he should ask.

In a recent survey of 1,174 riders, only 28 percent reported feeling safe aboard light rail. Yet, when prodded for specifics, the vast majority cited nuisance behavior such as noise, profanity and smoking as the main cause of discomfort, not actual crime, which ranked a distant fourth.

RT’s image problem isn’t just academic. In February, light rail dipped below 1 million riders for the first time in 19 months, dating back to July 2013.

The system needs to better those numbers to achieve financial health, but also to improve safety. “The more people that ride the system, the safer it is,” said Leong, who explains that criminals are less likely to strike in crowds. “We have really few problems during commute hours.”

Consider it a Catch-22. More people won’t ride the line until they believe it’s safer, and the line won’t become safer without more people riding it.

With T-minus 17 months until the new Sacramento Kings arena opens downtown, the pressure is on to tidy up a system that’s expected to get busier.

The only problem is that the ones responsible for untangling this Gordian knot represent competing constituencies. And they all intersect at RT Police Services.

RT Police Services is a mishmash group. At about 138 strong, the squad stands larger than the Marysville Police Department, Leong notes.

But don’t let that stat fool you.

Private security guards with limited authority make up approximately 71 percent of Police Services. Employees of G4S Secure Solutions, they earn around $12 an hour to observe, report and, most of all, act as visual deterrents to train trouble. They can’t do much about the problems they encounter, and they can’t cite fare-evaders, because that’s a union job.

RT transit fare inspectors have the primary responsibility to issue citations, but there’s only 13 of them for 76 light-rail vehicles and 182 buses.

One of the problems is that no new inspectors have been hired since 2008, said Ralph Niz, president and business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 256, which represents RT employees. “Our goal has always been to hire more transit officers,” he added. “And hopefully we work this out before the arena opens. … I’m deeply concerned about the safety for both the operators and the public [when the arena opens].”

Niz claimed assaults on bus drivers are already a “major problem.”

Overall, RT tallied 27 reported crimes in March (the last month for which data was available), 29 in February and 24 in January. Those numbers have held pretty steady for a year, going back to May 2014, when there were 16 reported crimes.

Improving fare inspection and enforcement were cited as big priorities for the riders surveyed by RT, whom Leong said don’t want to feel like the only ones paying to ride.

In May of last year, the guards began checking fares along with RT inspectors and cops. But with no authority to cite fare-dodgers, Leong said fare evasion is likely higher than the roughly 1 percent that’s been given in monthly RT performance reports. Fare-evasion is tricky to tabulate, but Leong estimates that a more realistic figure lies between 4 percent and 11 percent of all riders.

Talk of letting guards back up their inspection duties with citations is a nonstarter with Niz, who sees it as a step toward privatization. “It is a slippery slope,” he said.

He also doesn’t think the answer lies in expanding RT’s agreements with the sheriff’s and police departments. He’d rather broaden the role of a transit fare inspector than bring in more outside help.

Such talks are just beginning with RT Chief Operating Officer Mark Lonergan, Niz said. RT spokeswoman Alane Masui said the company “will work cooperatively with labor to reach a mutually acceptable solution.” In an email, she described that solution as “a mixed force” of law enforcement, security guards and transit officers. “Finally,” she said, “we don’t negotiate in the press so the details of our discussions with labor are not public.”

Inheriting a static force, Leong has pressed his 90-plus guards—the largest portion of his staff—to interact with riders and pick up trash. He says they’ve gotten better at boarding different cars at stops to heighten their visibility since command began spot-checking their performance.

Jennifer Silva is probably like many light-rail regulars. She says she rides the line because she doesn’t have alternative transportation. On the plus side, she’s racked up several hours worth of impromptu theater.

“I’ll say this, it’s entertaining,” she said Friday afternoon during a lurching trip from downtown to the Mather station.

Silva has witnessed fights and drunken behavior, and suffered through loud music and general rudeness. But she’s also struck up pleasant conversations with fellow commuters. And she can’t beat light-rail’s 99-percent on-time departure rate.

This is not the customer RT is necessarily trying to reach. “The challenge is getting those who have chosen not to take the system to get back on,” Leong said.

Masui said Police Services’ $9.8 million budget would increase by $900,000 next fiscal year. Whether any of that money goes toward hiring more bodies is unclear.

About $1.5 million from a separate capital improvement fund would pay for active-shooter training, anti-terrorism patrols, mobile screening for explosives, digital video recorders on buses, and upgraded video surveillance and security systems, among other purchases.

With crime relatively low, Leong is refocusing his team on the rule violators that seem to irk most riders these days. Toward that effort, he’s working with RT’s legal department to clean up ordinance language governing what is and isn’t allowed on the rails. “There’s all kinds of moving pieces,” he said.

Later this month, a proposal to develop six fare zones will be presented to the RT board, with an eye toward implementing the pilot project in June or July. A person will have to show that they have purchased a ticket to be inside one of these zones, which will include the 7th & K station. “We’ll give you the opportunity to purchase fare, but if you don’t we’ll force you to leave or cite you,” Leong said.

The idea is to pick six stations with different boundaries and issues, so they can troubleshoot what issues arise. “It’s very hard to close a system that was built to be open,” Leong added.

A different sort of relief may come via Assembly Bill 869. Assemblyman Jim Cooper’s proposal would allow ticketed fare-evaders to pay their fines through a much cheaper administrative process, rather than a courts one that stacks on unrelated fees. The bill passed its first legislative hurdle last month.

Leong is also in talks with Sacramento Steps Forward about hiring a homeless and mental-health navigator to refer troubled riders into direct services.

“I think it has improved,” he said. “We certainly have a long way to go.”

Back in the command center, the guards monitor their screens. Many here moonlight as volunteer police officers, Leong said, hoping to transition from entry-level private-sector gigs to unionized civil servants. On a side wall inside the command center’s surveillance office, framed photos of the people who successfully made that transition silently spur them on.