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Metro transit police: Not quite the region’s finest

In unique jurisdiction, outcomes of enforcement sometimes fall short

- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2012

Last of three parts

It was just after midnight, and Isaiah N. Nichols was prowling Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington looking for sex. Twenty dollars, answered a woman who was "trying to make some money."

"That's what's up. I'll meet you over there," Mr. Nichols said.

The woman turned out to be an undercover police officer conducting a sting, and Mr. Nichols was arrested. He agreed to enroll in a "john school" class and was ordered to stay away from the Northeast strip.

But Mr. Nichols, too, was a police officer, and is still on the beat for the Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD).

While police in Maryland, Virginia and the District work to keep the region safe, also among the mix is the Metro transit system's lesser-known 600-member force, which uniquely has law enforcement authority across all three jurisdictions. But records suggest that the agency has conducted little enforcement of the transit system's everyday rules and that the department also counts among its ranks people who have been arrested for violent and predatory crimes.

Officer Sivi Jones, for example, has a long history of arrests in connection with violent crimes, including felony threatening to injure a person, domestic assault and simple assault, according to court records and colleagues. She was largely able to escape convictions, including a "no papered" judgment, where prosecutors agreed not to pursue charges if the defendant stayed out of trouble.

But it was not out of respect for the justice system she is tasked with upholding: Court records note that the Southeast resident also failed to appear for a court date on assault charges filed against her.

Metro's officers carry guns and are tasked with enforcing all laws on Metro property, including its 86 rail stations and thousands of bus stops. It also enforces quality-of-life rules of the transit agency, such as a ban on eating and drinking.

"These guys are not the cream of the cop in law enforcement. They are less educated and don't know how to assess a situation in a logical manner," said James Bitner, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor who has represented clients who he said have been beaten and wrongly charged by Metro police. "You're not getting a straight-A student. You're getting a C and D student."

In some cases, that has led to corruption.

Light penalties

Officer John V. Haile pleaded guilty to theft from a federally funded agency this month after stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from Metro. The transit police officer was supposed to ensure compliance with the law as another Metro employee recovered revenue from fare machines, but instead, Haile, with the other employee, hid $500 bags of coins in bushes and bought lottery tickets with the money. Metro said it did not know exactly how much money went missing.

Mr. Nichols and Ms. Jones are just two of a number of MTPD officers who court records suggest have been arrested in connection with drug, theft and violent crimes, a comparison by The Washington Times of the MTPD roster and D.C. and Maryland criminal filings found. Metro would not confirm or deny any of the cases. Some, including Ms. Jones, talked openly about their rap sheets on the job, according to colleagues.

In most cases, the officers avoided formal convictions by securing entry into programs by which convictions are averted by performing community service, seeking treatment or avoiding more trouble. In other cases, they took steps to seal their records after the fact.

This sometimes allowed them run-in after run-in with the law without a mark that would mandate their exclusion from the force. When Mr. Nichols was arrested on charges of trespassing for returning to a Greenbelt Safeway from which he had been banned because of a prior incident, for example, prosecutors agreed to spare the expense of a trial and conviction if he performed 24 hours of community service. His participation in john school after the prostitution arrest garnered a similar result.

Arrest histories were most common in the MTPD's Special Police unit, 150 commissioned officers who guard Metro facilities such as headquarters and bus depots. Mr. Nichols and Ms. Jones are both members of that unit. It was special police officers who, when a teenager who did not work for Metro drove a bus out of the Bladensburg Road station in 2010, allowed him through two identification checkpoints. He later crashed the bus into a tree and fled.

Another officer recently fired his service weapon accidentally inside Metro's headquarters downtown, officers said.

Still, in some cases, little accountability from management was evident, according to records. Mr. Nichols received a three-day suspension for the prostitution incident, according to MTPD records.

A report by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's Office of Inspector General initiated after on-the-job drug use by department employees last year, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, also said that the special police section's supervisor, Capt. Anthony Metcaffe, did not act on information about officers sleeping on the job.

"He said that he did not recall receiving or did not receive" the complaints, the report said, but an examination by the information technology department "reflected that he received all these emails."

Little enforcement

Some information about the department is impossible to know because the agency has failed to turn over materials under public-records requests. It recently invested in MetroStat, a crime-tracking tool that provides sophisticated analysis. But when a reporter filed a formal request for such analysis, Metro claimed the closest thing in existence was a video of MTPD Chief Michael A. Taborn announcing the tool's arrival.

Records that Metro separately released to The Times show that in 2010, the transit police confronted a total of 50 riders about consuming food or beverages in the transit system, nine of whom were ticketed and one of whom was arrested. Forty were warned. Officials said protocol calls for warnings before ticketing.

At about 215 million trips per year, that is one contact every 4 million riders.

Eight were confronted for playing loud music, according to data recently produced by Metro in response to an open-records request filed last year.

Officers said that informal warnings for infractions are recorded as the issuance of "calling cards." Records show 250 of those given to people on foot each year.

The force's primary activity was making an average of 5,200 stops yearly for fare evasion, 10 percent of whose targets were arrested, 11 percent of whom were warned, and 35 percent of which had an unclear outcome, including some evaders who got away. The rest were ticketed. It also gave 1,800 tickets for alcohol violations.

In terms of serious crimes between 2008 and 2010, the transit police force reported four rapes, three of which remain unsolved. Also reported were two homicides, neither of which resulted in an arrest.

That works out to about 11 tickets and three arrests per officer yearly.

Metro police say one of their major functions is as a deterrent.

The rarity with which officers encounter serious altercations, though, has sometimes led to apparent overreactions. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is pursuing two cases against the transit police involving excessive or unnecessary use of force, one after officers knocked a wheelchair-bound man out of his chair on U Street Northwest and arrested the man's friend who questioned their actions. Prosecutors dropped charges against the friend, Lawrence Miller, whom the ACLU is now representing in a civil case.

Metro police charged the wheelchair-bound man with assault on an officer, but those charges were also dropped.

The MTPD is set to have its numbers swell as 1,000 more positions are added within the transit agency, some going to the police.

The minimal basic enforcement has not stopped the transit police from engaging in high-profile displays of force and security, in part a result of $3 million per year in counterterrorism funds it receives as a reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The measures include periodic checkpoints, where police post at an entrance to a Metro station and check random customers' bags for explosives.

"The ACLU believes it's costly and ineffective and that we'd prevail in a court challenge," said senior staff attorney Fritz Mulhuaser.

Civil liberties questions aside, critics say, the checks do not prohibit a would-be terrorist from simply using another entrance to the station

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