Severe shortages in security staffing across metro Denver’s transit system since last summer have resulted in more than $330,000 in fines against RTD’s major security contractor for unfilled shifts that are responsible for near-daily cancellations of commuter rail trains.
The shortages also have hindered the Regional Transportation District’s ability to crack down on a surge in open drug use in recent months. Besides drug and crime problems at Union Station, drug use has especially plagued light rail trains and platforms, since those train lines — unlike the A, B, G and N commuter-rail lines — don’t require a second crew member to operate under federal rules. The result is less onboard monitoring by security officers.
Allied Universal Security Services, now the largest security provider in the world, is supposed to supply about 290 armed and unarmed personnel but has had trouble filling a quarter or more of its shifts on most days lately, RTD says. Staffing reports, obtained by The Denver Post through an open-records request to RTD, show that as of March 18, the contractor reported 83 security job vacancies, or nearly 29%.
Despite slight improvements in commuter rail staffing since January — vacancies fell from 34% to 30% — the situation worsened on light rail, the records show, pushing the overall vacancy rate up slightly. Months of email traffic between Allied and RTD show the contractor has struggled both to recruit in a tight, competitive labor market and to overcome year-over-year turnover that exceeded 100% last fall.
As RTD tries to attract back passengers and recover from the pandemic, the security shortages are among the factors contributing to riders’ unease: They don’t always know if trains and buses will come when they’re scheduled. Fare checks on trains are noticeably rarer than they were just a few years ago.
And particularly worrisome to operators as well as riders such as Allison Aber: It’s unlikely that anyone with authority will tell a person smoking crack, meth or fentanyl to leave a train or platform — though RTD’s small in-house transit police force began running targeted enforcement actions earlier this month. RTD’s transit police chief also urges riders to report real-time incidents on its Transit Watch smartphone app.
“We need to do more collectively to inspire people to take public transportation for the future of our society,” Aber told The Post, “but it’s no wonder more people do not take the light rail.”
Aber provided a short video clip of a man holding a lighter at the bottom of a pipe while seated on her light-rail train around noon on a recent Monday. She was traveling home to south Denver after attending a graduate class at the University of Colorado Denver on the Auraria Campus. She’s taken the train three days a week since January, she said, and has seen drug use repeatedly.
It’s more likely to happen on her ride home, she said, when fewer riders are onboard midday. It always comes with noxious fumes. During the recent incident, she changed train cars at the next station. Then she posted the video on Reddit, drawing hundreds of responses that included other recent accounts of drug activity aboard RTD.
“I didn’t feel unsafe physically, because he obviously wasn’t going to do anything,” said Aber, 24. “But when people are smoking on the train, I feel unsafe for my health. What am I inhaling — is it fentanyl?”
“I think the easiest thing would be just to find more security” officers, she added, perhaps by increasing the pay offered.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
An RTD Transit Police car is parked at the Sheridan Station on the W-Line in Denver on Thursday, April 21, 2022.
Drug use poses complex challenge for system
Widespread drug use poses a complex challenge. Even if Allied’s light-rail team was at full staffing, not every train car would have an officer onboard to keep watch. At the same time, a transition to more unarmed agents under RTD’s contract — in part due to the severe assault of a man in a Union Station restroom by an Allied guard in 2018 — means fewer now play enforcement roles.
As RTD leaders frequently point out, drug use on RTD vehicles and property is a symptom of the increase in illegal drug abuse across society during the pandemic.
Steve Martingano, RTD’s interim police chief, voiced skepticism that more robust security staffing would eliminate drug use on vehicles or at stations. But he acknowledged a deterrent effect when security personnel, supplemented by RTD transit police officers and moonlighting cops, are present — whether it’s drugs or other criminal activity.
“We’re hearing what our customers are saying. We’re hearing what our employees are saying … and we’ll try to be everywhere we can,” he said. “But you know, it’s just impossible to be everywhere at the same time, and that’s where we’re struggling.”
As for the contractor’s shortages, Allied told The Post that it’s working to fill them in a highly competitive climate by offering hiring and retention bonuses and stepping up recruiting. But a company statement cited pandemic-related labor challenges, which have been common to many other employers — including RTD’s operational divisions — as a major hindrance.
Another, the company says, is a backlog in licensing for armed guards at the city of Denver.
“The positions most difficult to fill are openings for armed guards,” the statement says. “This is a critical position with stringent requirements, making the available qualified applicant pool significantly smaller and highly competitive.”
An Allied spokeswoman turned down The Post’s request for an interview with company officials to ask more detailed questions.
The company’s recent job postings for transit security officers in Denver advertise starting pay of $23.17 an hour for armed positions and $20 for unarmed positions, plus a $500 sign-on bonus. Those rates are set by the company’s three-year contract with RTD, which is worth a maximum $67.7 million and expires in July, though an extension is possible. Under its terms, the company can bill only for actual shifts worked by its employees.
A man, center, appears to be lighting a pipe that, according to RTD officers, had illegal drugs in it. He was part of a group at the RTD Union Station light rail transit station on Dec. 2, 2021.
Commuter rail shortages have cost contractor
Allied has lost out on revenue in two ways because of its inability to fully staff the commuter rail lines’ second crew member positions. Those take the form of armed guards on the A, B and G lines, under RTD’s arrangement with private operator Denver Transit Partners, while a pilot program has provided unarmed “safety ambassadors” for the RTD-operated N-Line.
“They’re not charging us for all those shifts” they can’t fill, Martingano said. “And they’re also being fined for not meeting those shifts. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword.”
Billing letters provided by RTD show that since August, when shortages on those lines became a problem, it has issued monthly contractual fines to Allied, at $500 per unfilled shift, totaling $331,500 through the end of March. Fines have increased from $30,000 for September and August combined to $76,000 last month.
The letters say RTD and DTP covered some of the missed commuter rail shifts with their own employees, but there are limits for positions that require armed guards. The rest result in canceled trains.
RTD’s legal department confirmed that the agency hadn’t assessed regular fines prior to August.
Cancellations of runs on the A, B, G and N lines due to the lack of a security officer or agent have exacerbated the already high number of train and bus cancellations caused by RTD’s own persistent operator shortages. On one weekday in late March, security shortages resulted in trimming the schedule by half for RTD’s highest-ridership train line, the A-Line to the airport, for most of the day. It ran every 30 minutes instead of every 15.
Early on, according to emails sent by an Allied regional vice president, the company protested the fines for unfilled shifts.
“Is there an opportunity for us to sit down and discuss the Force Majeure clause in the contract?” wrote the official, Jeremy Lee, to Martingano and then-RTD Police Chief Robert Grado in November. He cited the company’s pandemic-related labor challenges.
But Martingano noted in a later email that RTD had “requested Allied clarify how the current staffing shortages, which began in August of this year ‘arise out of’ or are caused by the COVID-19 virus.”
The company has paid the fines while providing weekly updates to RTD about its recruiting efforts and vacancies. At times, RTD officials responded with praise for improvements in the numbers.
As the travails continue, the company and RTD have been working out plans for more pivots in RTD’s security approach.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
Regional Transportation District Transit Police officers Amy Homyak, left, and Stephen Johnson, check the tickets of passengers at the Sheridan Station on the W-Line in Denver on Thursday, April 21, 2022. The officers were part of an “impact team” that selected the station for a morning enforcement initiative, both on the platform and onboard trains that passed through.
Starting in late 2020, in part due to the fallout of that 2018 beating, the agency outlined a five-year plan to take more control of security in-house by shifting money from the Allied contract toward the hiring of dozens of transit police officers. Martingano said the force will grow to 22 this month and could reach 70 or even 100 officers in a few years.
The goal is for transit police to handle more enforcement while contracted security officers and agents focus on safety and customer service, more akin to conductors on trains. While that is years away, RTD and Allied have tried out pilot programs replacing some armed security officers with unarmed agents at facilities and on trains.
RTD plans to absorb the N-Line safety ambassadors program, employing them directly, starting this summer, Martingano said. Allied also has pushed for a change in setup that would allow the use of easier-to-hire unarmed agents to fill required security positions on the A, B and G lines.
DTP spokesman Jeremy Story said Friday that the lines’ private operator supports that change.
RTD isn’t alone in facing security problems
When it comes to drug use and other crime, transit agencies across the country have faced similar problems. In Seattle, King County Metro Transit workers in recent months raised the alarm about a spike in drug use on buses that a union official said was contributing to “the deterioration of transit.”
In St. Louis, crime concerns are behind a $52 million Metro Transit security plan that includes the potential installation of turnstiles at all 38 of its light rail system’s stations. RTD, with a larger system, similarly does not have turnstiles to verify fares before riders enter its trains.
So far, though, agency leaders have decided to create a paid-fare area, potentially with turnstiles, in just one place — Union Station’s underground bus terminal, which has seen higher crime, loitering and drug use since last fall.
Train operators have been among those pushing RTD to figure out more security staffing on trains and at Union Station.
“The numbers are so drastically down that that is absolutely one of the problems,” said Lance Longenbohn, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001. “I think it’s part of the solution to have adequate numbers there.”
But he said security wasn’t the only factor, and he agreed with Martingano that more staffing wouldn’t fully fix the drug-use problems. He also cites reduced criminal penalties for possession of fentanyl in recent years — a matter that state legislators have been hotly debating this session.
A new RTD transit police “impact team” that focuses on rail lines has cracked down at stops and boarded trains, sending four officers to swarm problem spots identified in part through riders’ complaints — with the W-Line getting repeat attention because of recurring drug problems. The team is one of four created this month, with another detailed to the bus system and others geared toward mental health responses and community partnerships, Martingano said.
The officers can issue tickets, expel people from RTD property for rule-breaking or engage with people who need connections to service providers, as is the goal at Union Station. In rare situations where a rider poses a threat, its officers can initiate arrests.
Martingano said the agency’s Transit Watch app can be used to report problems in real time on trains and buses. In some cases, that results in a police or security response, but at the least, it adds another data point for police officers’ trendspotting.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
RTD Transit Police officer Stephen Johnson checks a train at the Sheridan Station on the W-Line in Denver on Thursday, April 21, 2022.
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On a recent Thursday afternoon, it wasn’t difficult to find people using drugs on the W-Line.
No police or security officers were in sight on trains ridden by a Post reporter over the course of 45 minutes or on the Wadsworth platform about 4 p.m., as activity was picking up. Just as a downtown-bound train pulled into the station, a man sitting on the ground, with a lighter and piece of aluminum foil in his hand, bent over and pulled his jacket over his head, providing cover as he prepared to smoke a substance.
On the train a few minutes later, a clicking sound at the back of the car was followed by the wafting of an overpowering smell, similar to burning rubber or plastic, toward other passengers. A man inhaled the smoking substance through a tube. Another rider remarked at how inconsiderate she found it. He didn’t respond.
The man exited the train with two companions at the next stop.