Tuesday, February 12, 2013
SAN DIEGO Allen Witt's handcuffs, pepper spray, and .45 caliber Springfield fit snugly along the officer's thick, black belt. His large frame, cropped grey hair and dark sunglasses cut an imposing figure against a sandy California dusk.
He pointed north. A surfer in a wetsuit and long hair had just skipped across the double railroad tracks -- a few hundred feet from the ocean in the sleepy community of Cardiff-by-the-Sea.
Private transit cops in San Diego say they’re unequipped to protect the public because the company and agencies in charge are doing the job on the cheap.
Private transit cops in San Diego say they’re unequipped to protect the public because the company and agencies in charge are doing the job on the cheap.
"That's illegal," Witt said calmly. "But what am I gonna do, cite the guy?"
He had bigger issues on his mind.
A "Screamer" ripped through the tranquil scene — more than a million pounds of train flashing past at speeds up to 90 miles per hour.
Witt guessed at the numbers.
Hundreds of passengers per train. Thousands per day. Millions per year.
If they only knew.
Witt and his colleagues at the private firm Universal Protection Service are the front line security in San Diego County's leg of the second-busiest rail corridor in the country, which runs through Los Angeles, up to San Luis Obispo.
It's a low-paying job, with long hours, lots of risks and a wide net of responsibility.
Witt and his fellow officers worry. They worry everyday about how ill-equipped, untrained and unprepared they are to respond to even relatively routine emergencies, let alone a train collision or terrorist attack.
Throughout the past several months, the KPBS and inewsource, Investigations Desk examined hundreds of pages of government contracts, employee handbooks and hazard mitigation plans, interviewed law enforcement agents and security professionals at the federal, state, and local levels, and talked with dozens of current and past employees within Universal Protection Service — men who risked their jobs, and some of them say their lives, to bring these issues to light.
"This is a Homeland Security issue that's been going on way too long and been ignored,” Witt said.
Universal Protection Service is a national company that’s responsible for living up to the terms of its local contracts. Two San Diego government transit agencies are responsible for enforcing those terms.
Universal is appealing a $20,270 fine for worker safety violations and is the subject of an ongoing state investigation. The company did not acknowledge phone messages from inewsource.
The transit agencies denied multiple requests for interviews. In an email, one agency said officer training was adequate. The other agency left a partial voicemail that did not address training.
Shortly after its formation in 1975, San Diego's Metropolitan Transit System contracted out its security to a local company called Heritage Security Services. The North County Transit District, formed in 1975 as well, followed Metropolitan’s lead and hired Heritage in 1997.
Both districts provide transportation services to 94 million passengers every year by way of 19 locomotives, 667 buses and 134 trolleys that criss-cross between Mexico’s border, downtown San Diego, Escondido and Oceanside.
To protect its passengers, the San Diego County transit districts hired Heritage to patrol, protect, and arrest as “pro-active enforcement” officers.
North County requires officers to “Act as Primary Responders to Terrorist threats and incidents.” Metropolitan Transit System requires them to “Perform first aid, maintain order, and assist rescue operations at the scene of accidents and train/bus disasters,” among many other things.
On May 1, 2012, a rapidly-expanding national security company called Universal Protection Service bought Heritage Security Services. All of the company’s officers and contracts came with it.
According to these contracts, all officers are required to pass basic and advanced training curriculums, be licensed in first aid and CPR, able to conduct bomb searches and building evacuations, and prepared to act as primary responders to terrorism threats.
For more than $9 million a year, the districts hired officers to respond to fatality scenes involving train vs. pedestrian accidents, suicides, and automobile collisions; to react to calls for fainting, shortness of breath, heart attacks and seizures; and to assist in collision investigations, help during power outages and maintain crowd control when needed.
Yet multiple interviews have revealed that much of the contractually-obligated training — which would enable them to do all of those jobs — hasn’t happened for at least the past five years.
While the officers are not your standard “rent-a-cops” — many come from the military, police or private security fields — according to them, little of their past is applicable to San Diego’s relatively unique transit setting.
“As a police officer,” said Universal Officer Mo Hahn, speaking about his 27 years as a San Diego police officer, “if I went to a train crash, I would have no clue how to open doors, windows, escape routes. I'd know nothing about -- and I don't ever remember having any training as a law enforcement officer -- on how to deal with a train crash.”
“So,” he said, “law enforcement can be just as lost at a train crash as we would be arriving with lack of information and training.”
Aside from a brief bit of press in 2009, Heritage and Universal have largely escaped the public spotlight for the 31 years they've operated within the county.
“It’s something that, I’m afraid, the public doesn’t know — and needs to know,” said Witt.
James Marrs elaborated.
“If a bomb goes off on one of our trolleys,” he said, “not to be negative — but oh well."
“You're looking at mass casualties, you're looking at the hysteria, the madness that's going to come right after that,” he said.
Boyd Long, the assistant chief of police for the San Diego Police Department, said he spent most of his career around “trolley guys,” and sees them as gap-fillers, able to provide services that his department can’t, such as maintaining a highly-visible presence along the tracks to ward off crime.
But Long says he wouldn't expect them to be completely prepared for a national security situation.
“I think that's our job,” he said.
San Diego Sheriff’s Department Commander Mike Barletta said Universal’s officers have been “adequate” in helping the department during accidents and arrests over the years. Their lack of training, according to Barletta, “really hasn’t been an issue for us” — nor has he heard any complaints among officers.
The San Diego Police Department, as well as the County’s Sheriff’s Department, competed against Heritage for the Metropolitan Transit System’s first contract in 1981 — and lost.
inewsource has found that San Diego is one of only a handful of locations in the country where the responsibility for guarding a mass transit system is contracted out to an armed, private security force, instead of a police force.
“We're wearing tactical gear, carrying a baton... a firearm, and a badge,” said Universal officer Jerome Mundy. “If anyone puts themselves in that situation where maybe a train's derailed or a terrorist act or a madman or whatever, the first person you're going to look to is most likely going to be a uniformed officer who's armed and has body armor and the tools to protect you.”
“So,” he said, “observe and report is out the window at that point.” (story continues below timeline)
Around 10:00 a.m. on Dec. 12, 2012, fire departments throughout seven cities received an alert describing a collision between a fully-loaded freight train and a passenger train near Camp Pendleton -- about an hour and a half south of Los Angeles. Nineteen bodies were pulled from the light rail vehicle between 10 a.m. and noon that sunny Wednesday morning.
There were no screams, shouts, moans or tears; no smoke, fire or explosions; no trails of blood or broken limbs.
Even more noticeably absent was the freight train.
Everyone attending the emergency training exercise was asked to come wearing sturdy, close-toed footwear — the safety hats and vests were provided to all members of the media as a safety precaution.
Observers arrived from the San Diego Sheriff's Department, Red Cross, and Office of Emergency Services. Also watching over the scene were representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration, the California Public Utilities Commission, and the event's hosting organization — the North County Transit District.
Yet Universal officers weren't in attendance — they weren't even invited.
Deborah Castillo, spokesperson for North County, said the officers weren’t invited because, “they are not allowed to be on the base in uniform.”
“Normally,” she said, “they are part of our emergency drills.”
Witt has been on the job for a little more than four years. He said, "We've never been on any drill, ever."
Universal employees are called upon to assist the San Diego Sheriff's Department in midnight searches of train-hoppers and felons, and are required to arrest and detain when necessary.
They are almost always the first on scene at any passenger-rail incident between Mexico's border and the southern edge of Orange County. (story continues below video)
According to his colleagues, Witt has the most dangerous assignment — patrolling the rail’s main line, alone and at night, often without communication. Although he carries an assuming presence at 6'3" and 230 pounds, his heightened vigilance during an afternoon sweep of a homeless camp alongside the tracks in Cardiff highlighted what he and his colleagues call a "360-degree threat level" — anyone from anywhere at any time for any reason.
"It's very conceivable that in a moment’s notice you're fighting for your life," Witt said.
It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened.
A History of Violence
Heritage's training was first questioned in 2009 after a rash of violence befell its officers.
In one month, three officers were attacked — two had their guns stolen, one was shot.
Metropolitan Transit System Spokesman Rob Schupp, speaking on behalf of the contractor at the time, labeled the assaults isolated incidents, and said that Heritage has “a certified tactic specialist on their team” and "every week they retrain people and teach them the latest techniques."
Then-president of Heritage Security Services Ken Moller, now vice president of Universal's regional operations, claimed officers received 164 hours of training.
Marrs, who has been with the security company for nearly five years, says that wasn’t the case then and isn’t now.
"There's no structured, formalized training," Marrs said, the capillaries in his left eye still bloodshot nearly a month after being assaulted at a bustling downtown rail station in November 2012. He was trying to diffuse a rapidly-escalating situation between an officer he was training for the job and a few angry men when a punch to his left jaw put him down on the ground, and an hour later, in the hospital with a fractured jawbone.
Marrs lost ten pounds during his first week of recovery, eating only soup and small pieces of banana.
"I can't emphasize enough — had we gotten some of these trainees better training, this probably wouldn't have happened,” he said, pointing to the bruises on his face.
Similar words had been spoken before.
In Sept. 2009, a Heritage guard for the North County Transit District shot and killed a 20-year-old Oceanside resident named Anthony Wacker after a verbal argument became physical at the Vista Transit Center. The plaintiff claimed the officer responsible was "under-trained, incompetent and un-supervised."
Wacker’s family ultimately received more than a million dollars in damages.
On Nov. 22, 2011, a suicidal woman held a Heritage officer hostage at gunpoint in a homeless encampment just west of Miramar Corps Air Station. It took the San Diego Police Department — along with assisting units from all over the county — four hours to take control of the situation and to get the woman into custody.
According to current Universal officers — not much has changed over time.
“Forget outside-the-box thinking,” said Witt, “we don't even have inside-the-box thinking.”
He and other officers laughed when asked if they had completed the mandatory 164-hour training regime. Most hadn't heard of the courses required by the contract, hadn't spent one second in "defensive tactics" classes, and hadn't learned a shred of counterterrorism techniques under their employer.
They carry guns, but the officers said they are given no formal shooting instruction beyond how to hit a target. They are certain they would be fired if they ever used the weapon.
Asked if he and his colleagues were prepared for any kind of emergency, Marrs declared, "Absolutely not." (story continues below video)
It's not just the public's safety that's in jeopardy.
In response to Universal employee complaints, the California Division of Occupational Health and Safety inspected Universal’s practices over the course of six months in 2012.
The inspection resulted in a $20,270 fine against the company.
Among the “serious” violations were a lack of required Hepatitis-B vaccinations and blood-borne pathogen training — necessary for officers who routinely find themselves among “debris fields,” or scattered remains of pedestrians struck by trains.
Cal/OSHA also cited Universal for a lack of personal protective devices, such as reflective vests and flashlights, and after evaluating the company’s health and safety program, graded the areas of training, responsibility, and employee participation as “poor.”
Universal is currently appealing the fines.
Cal/OSHA representatives also confirmed that a separate investigation into Universal was under way, although they could not disclose details.
Todd Gloria, San Diego council president and MTS member, and Oceanside Mayor Jim Wood, a veteran of his city's police department and a current North County Transit District board member, said they were unaware of the security situation before conversations with inewsource.
In a statement, Gloria said, “... the severity of the allegations is worthy of discussion... I have discussed my concerns with MTS leadership, and will follow up. Our transit system must be efficient, but it also must be safe for passengers and for the people expected to protect it.”
"I would be very concerned if those were accurate complaints," Wood said about the officers' statements.
Wood recommended speaking with North County Transit District's Chief of Security, Tom Zoll, or the agency's Executive Director, Matthew Tucker, for answers.
Both Zoll and Tucker refused to speak with inewsource, as did the responsible parties within the Metropolitan Transit System. Instead, both districts asked that specific questions be addressed in writing to their public relations departments.
inewsource attempted to reach someone within Universal Protection Service in San Diego, but was told the only person to speak to is the company’s Regional Vice President, Ken Moller.
Moller did not respond to multiple phone calls and messages.
”Why are you here today?”
On Dec. 12, 2012, five angry men shuffled into the KPBS television studios.
There was Marrs, his eye still bloodshot but much improved.
Accompanying him was Hahn, the veteran of the San Diego Police Department.
The two newcomers to the conversation — Michael Quattrocchi and Jerome Mundy — came from a management and defense background, respectively.
Witt, who over the last few months had helped prod his colleagues into the spotlight, was there as well.
Camera angles were adjusted as the men took their seats; the audio fine-tuned as they exchanged jokes back-and-forth.
Papers were placed on the ground, hands were crossed, glasses adjusted.
A hush fell over the group as the cameras started rolling. The officers were asked why they were speaking out, and whether or not they feared retribution for their actions. (story continues below video).
“I'll speak for myself on this one,” said Quattrocchi.
“As far as fear of retribution — of course. I intentionally sought out this line of work and discovered quickly that I loved it, that it suited me perfectly and I'm very happy doing the job I do. What comes into play is something bigger than that -- and that's why we're here.”
“We have our morals and more importantly our ethics,” he continued, “we can't allow ourselves to sit back and be silent on these issues any more than I could stand and watch somebody be beaten and not step in and help them. This is just as important, because the safety issues we're bringing to your attention — and to the public's attention — are real, live, concerns.”
“The retribution could be inevitable,” he continued, “I don't know. It depends on how companies view this, how the public views this — if at all.”
“But we’re here,” he said, “just the same.”