RTD aims for boost in unarmed guards in security contract changes

The Regional Transportation District says a proposed security contract extension would result in a more visible presence of officers across its system as the agency grapples with recurring drug use, harassment of operators and other problems.

The contract changes, up for consideration by RTD’s board Tuesday night, also take aim at the recurring train cancellations that repeatedly have thinned its commuter-rail schedules. To fill federally required second crew member positions on the privately managed A, B and G lines, a proposed pivot would allow Allied Universal Security Services to assign unarmed security specialists — who are easier to hire in a tight labor market — instead of armed officers.

The overall changes would increase security staffing and make guards more visible on buses, trains and platforms across metro Denver, with brighter uniforms to make them stand out, said Steve Martingano, RTD’s interim transit police chief. That’s on top of Allied’s recent headway in reducing double-digit vacancy rates, according to its reports to RTD, boosting its actual staffing by three dozen this spring.

Still, even as Allied adds dozens more unarmed guards, it’s clear the coming year won’t bring an overwhelming security surge. Or, as some riders have hoped, the assurance of a security presence onboard every light-rail train and bus — a likely impossible task.

In fact, Allied’s one-year contract extension, slated to begin July 1, would cost a maximum $20.3 million — about $3 million less than the security cost for the past year. Martingano attributes the decline to a roughly $3 gap in hourly pay between armed officers (who currently start at $23.17) and unarmed specialists (who start at $20), along with a shifting of more duties in-house at RTD.

“I think it’s going to be a huge increase in visibility — just because we’re going to have more staffing by being able to do this,” he said in an interview. “What we’re also hoping for is retention… within Allied.”

Martingano said freeing up dozens of Allied’s armed security officers would allow for deployment to trouble spots, as well as roving enforcement.

Other big transit agencies have faced security challenges as they’ve contended with slow pandemic ridership recoveries, the opioid epidemic and other problems spilling onto their platforms and vehicles. Though RTD’s ridership has improved over the last year, in April it stood at just 55% compared to April 2019.

The agency’s security shortcomings have gotten bad press for months, some of it national. Earlier this month, a Washington Post reporter chronicled the experience of a veteran driver on RTD’s busy, always-colorful Route 15 bus on East Colfax Avenue. The driver has witnessed violence, desperation, vitriol and recurring harassment. At the end of the article, the exasperated driver ended her shift early, walking off the bus.

Martingano said crime appears to be down on the system after months of enforcement actions and warmer weather.

Still, RTD’s 15 board directors, elected from districts across metro Denver, are sensitive to the problems — and the perceptions that keep many fearful riders away. RTD also is gearing up to offer fare-free rides in August.

“Do you believe this action will adequately help us recruit and retain the necessary staff, both armed and unarmed, to provide the security that we need — or at least help us to start addressing it?” Director Paul Rosenthal asked Martingano about the contract extension at a committee meeting in mid-June. He represents southeast Denver and nearby suburbs.

“Yes, for several reasons,” Martingano replied, focusing on the greater potential for guards to move up the ranks and the lower barriers to hiring unarmed guards.

Rosenthal expressed concern about pay rates, which are set to increase slightly in the coming year, including by 50 cents an hour for unarmed specialists. They were established under the expiring three-year contract, which allows for up to three single-year extensions.

To entice applicants, Allied’s current job postings now offer a $4,000 hiring bonus for armed officers and $1,000 for unarmed guards.

Allied staffing reports provided by RTD show big strides in hiring since mid-March. Its overall vacancy rate for nearly 290 security positions dropped from nearly 29% as of March 18 to about 16% last week.

Active security personnel increased from 206 to 240, with a growing share — about 40% — in unarmed positions.

RTD also relies on a small in-house police force and moonlighting cops from area police departments. The agency also is taking over staffing from Allied for a corps of commuter rail conductors for the N-Line; a spokeswoman says it’s filled 15 of 30 positions.

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