Urban Transportation Security
by Robert W. Dart
Urban transit systems are the very lifeblood of
metropolitan areas. They preserve our cities as vital
commercial centers. Their lines carry citizens to and from
their places of work, as well as to educational, recreational,
and cultural facilities.
Unfortunately, however, many citizens perceive that their
personal safety is endangered on urban transit systems because
they believe that dangerous levels of crime exist in subways.
For many riders, descending into the noisy, disorienting
subterranean world of rapid transit increases their fear of
Also contributing to the false perception of danger is the
reaction of the media to incidents that occur on subways. Even
though only about 5 percent of Chicago's total crime occurs on
the Chicago Transit System, the media tend to publicize these
crimes, while seeming to ignore these same types of crime when
they occur on the streets. This action only serves to reinforce
the belief that subway transit is unsafe.
Because citizens believe this to be true, and because
citizen perception of security affects volume and revenue, (1)
officers who police these systems must now incorporate into
their normal duties the critical task of changing citizen
apprehension about using a subway transit system. Riders must
not only be safe; they must also feel safe. Using the Chicago
Transit System as a case study, this article discusses possible
strategies that departments can use to reduce crime on urban
transportation systems, thereby changing citizen perception.
The Chicago Transit System (CTA) operates over 1,000 cars
that transport approximately one-half million persons daily. It
has over 140 stations and over 200 miles of track that are
policed by the Public Transportation Section of the Chicago
Future plans for the CTA call for an additional 9.2-mile
stretch of line to connect the existing loop to Midway Airport.
However, since local citizens and tourists arriving at the
airport will not use a system they believe to be unsafe, the
City of Chicago was confronted with the dilemma of how to police
the city's public transportation system more effectively.
To begin, officials reviewed the nature and scope of crimes
committed on the transportation system. Their goals were to
find possible solutions to these crime problems, and at the same
time, change the public's belief that subways were unsafe.
However, reducing the rate of crime required an organized
effort--a bandaid approach would not be effective. It was
necessary to reorganize totally in order to establish a program
with new goals and direction. Officials wanted to make a clear
commitment to the safety of the ridership.
Areas Addressed - Personnel
A primary consideration in the reorganization was how to
deploy personnel efficiently. Based on studied needs, transit
personnel are divided among three watches. The first shift
(midnights) receives 23 percent of the personnel, the second
shift (days) receives 34 percent of the personnel, and the third
shift (afternoons) receives 43 percent of the personnel. In
addition to patrol personnel, each 8-hour shift includes a
canine unit, a tactical unit, and a crime assault team (CAT).
These special units are deployed to any problem areas that need
their specific skills.
Because it was not effective to assign police officers to a
designated stretch of track during periods of low crime or low
ridership, the squad concept was born. This concept is designed
around first-line supervisors (sergeants), who deploy all or
part of their teams to high-crime platforms during certain times
and then to other platforms during peak ridership. This
enhances the citizen perception of safety by increasing the
presence of uniformed police officers.
At any given time, the transportation section has as many
as 10 squads assigned to different areas of the transit system.
A typical squad consists of four to six uniformed officers, two
plainclothes officers, and two canine officers, who are separate
from the canine units. Although users of transit systems
commonly believe that plainclothes officers combat crime most
effectively, riders are not at ease unless they also see
uniformed officers. And, because both plainclothes and
uniformed officers can make arrests, officials are able to
achieve a balance of visibility and productivity.
Canine units are also used to police the transit system.
The dogs, which are donated by citizens, are given 8 weeks of
intensive training in aggression, protection of their handlers,
and moving safely among crowds. Canine units not only give
transit users a greater sense of safety but they also reinforce
positive public relations. Riders look forward to seeing their
dogs and seem to take a personal interest in them.
Tactical units, which have the flexibility to be deployed
to any situation or crime pattern, play an integral part in the
effort to reduce the crime rate. These plainclothes officers
can move freely through the system without arousing the
suspicions of potential offenders. They observe all transit
criminal activity for patterns, such as time of day, day of
week, and modus operandi. Personnel in the unit then devise a
plan to address specific crime problems.
For example, thieves and pickpockets are a major problem on
transit systems. Most of them ply their trade during rush-hours
and during lunch times, when the subways are crowded. However,
because CTA tactical units target these thieves, the problem has
been greatly reduced.
Crime assault teams
The crime assault teams consist of experienced police
officers who exhibit a high degree of self-discipline and are
team players. They pose as ordinary transit users and wait for
criminals to take advantage of their apparent vulnerability. In
order to avoid a charge of entrapment, these officers react only
when they have been victimized.
During the trials of these criminals, the victim/officer
testifies as the complainant, and a crime assault team member
testifies as the arresting officer. These two factors
contribute to an extrodinarily high conviction rate in these
Ordinance enforcement team
Another major problem the CTA experienced was unlicensed
vendors. Prior to the new program, these illegal vendors were
issued ordinance complaint forms or citations similar to traffic
citations. However, because this method of enforcement provided
no assurance that offenders would appear in court to answer the
charge, it failed to serve as a deterrent. For this reason,
illegal vendors are now arrested by members of ordinance
enforcement teams, whose primary role is to ensure that vendors
comply with city ordinances. This approach has reduced the
number of vendors on the platforms, allowing passengers to move
freely and safely in the subway areas.
Watch commanders use three methods to assign personnel,
including Operation Impact, Operation Vacuum, and Operation
Saturation. Commanders who use Operation Impact assign their
officers based on ridership traffic patterns. Officers are
assigned to stations that handle large numbers of riders, while
those stations with fewer riders are monitored by moving police
Criminals tend to explore transit systems for areas where
there is no police presence. Operation Vacuum enables watch
commanders to withdraw uniformed officers from a specific
station and deploy them to another area. The ostensibly vacant
station can then become the focal point of a tactical team.
When officials want to convey the impression that police
are everywhere, such as during rush-hour at busy stations, they
use Operation Saturation. This operation, which may last either
all or part of a shift, involves saturating particular lines
with uniformed officers. It is an effective way to both deter
criminals and build citizen confidence in the CTA's policing
methods by conveying the impression that officers are
Mass transit systems are an integral part of large cities,
and as these cities expand in both population and size, the
importance of this mode of transportation will also increase.
However, if citizens refuse to use subways because they believe
that they are unsafe, the full potential of the systems will
never be realized. For this reason, officials must begin to
look at ways to reduce crime on rapid transit systems, which
will also help to change citizen perception.
The initiatives put into operation by the Chicago Mass
Transit System are examples of how a concerted effort to reduce
crime can work. During the first year of the program, there was
a 40-percent reduction in reported serious crime, and the crime
rate continues to decline. The plan has been a resounding
success, with ridership on the rise again. The Chicago subway is
finally becoming a safe--and popular--mode of transportation.
(1) "Policing Urban Mass Transit Systems," U.S. Department
of Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, National
Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, 1977.
Robert W. Dart
Gang Crimes Section
Chicago Police Department