‘It is very important for us to balance service and safety’
In the second part of our conversation with Dr. Joel Fitzgerald Sr., RTD’s Chief of Police and Emergency Management discusses policing RTD stations and properties in the frigid winter months, adding mental health clinicians and a licensed social worker to the team, and his view on the agency’s relationships with groups across the region. Yesterday’s exchange – in which the chief speaks to a new, decentralized approach to staffing and his plans for the future of the Police Department – is available here.
In the most frigid months last winter, higher numbers of people who were not transit customers took shelter from the cold inside busy RTD hubs such as the bus concourse at Union Station. How should police agencies like RTD’s approach such a reality? What plans are being made for these spaces as this winter approaches and in the months beyond?
I think the simple answer is that RTD stations aren't points where folks should sleep and camp. RTD is a transit agency. We move people. And with moving people, I would suggest that a child or adult or anyone using our services should not have to worry about tripping over people in a bus concourse or being assaulted by someone breaking the law; that’s not what they pay for.
Unhoused circumstances, drug addiction and mental health crises are huge societal problems that disproportionately affect the underprivileged and economically disadvantaged, but we must not lose sight of the fact that we move people. Could we ever claim that we offered the best service if we allowed for those problems to affect you or your family while going to school or to work? It is unfair to think of RTD as the lone adjudicator of a plethora of modern problems, so we are taking a collaborative and empathetic approach to helping those who may not recognize their behaviors negatively affect others. We recognize that no one should walk past persons in need or crisis, or knowingly allow folks to die on the street, but a huge first step is to acknowledge that deeper social issues are not solved by ignoring assaultive or offensive behaviors or opening the bus terminal and allowing it to become a place for people to camp and sleep. As a result, we proactively collaborated with the city and county of Denver to address each of those variables with compassion. We will continue to strive to make the entire system safe for the majority of customers and will enforce the law when it is required.
We provide alternatives for those who require non-punitive resources and will move forward with availing those whom we are able to connect with the same, by limiting their access to massive customer-only areas with controlled physical access changes to infrastructure, or paid fare areas. The gradual introduction of paid fare areas ensures we recognize that those who purchase tickets to be granted access to a particular area have a reasonable expectation – that while using RTD resources, they will encounter others who also paid to use RTD resources. The areas also make it easier to identify those who have not paid, who have previously been the subject of trespass warnings or, more importantly, those in need of access to social service providers before they enter paid areas. We're going to make every effort to help them.
The public safety action plan calls for adding three mental health clinicians and one licensed social worker to the team next year. Why make this change?
I think that it is very important for us to balance service and safety, so although it’s an expansion in our services, it is not enough. We need mental health clinicians and social service workers in each one of our areas. With five areas covering 2,400 square miles, at least one per area per shift makes sense. RTD can’t be expected to bear that burden alone, so we will need to leverage our relationships with other law enforcement agencies, like we are with Denver, to become more effective regionally. Most people believe that those workers will be put to better use in the Union Station and Civic Center area, but if those areas are no longer central places to gather, people begin to displace, and where do we think that folks are going to go? They're going to go to the outlying areas throughout the region, so we need to make the same resources accessible, not just in downtown Denver and at Union Station, but in Lakewood, Aurora, Boulder, etc.
The answer to this question again provides support for our area and commander concepts. Ultimately, I do expect us to have clinicians and social workers serving the entire region, and although that is not explained in great length in the short-term, it is a long-term goal of mine because I feel we can do a better job across the region for our customers.
From your own outreach and meetings with the community, what have you learned about RTD’s partnerships and relationships with specific groups across its district? What is going well? Where can improvements be made?
I think what's going well is that we have the same mindset that our stakeholders have – our stakeholders being our customers; the people who use or are in, around or exposed to RTD facilities and major hubs; the downtown business association; and downtown homeowners. They echo the same sentiment. They collectively agree that we want people in need to get connected to critical resources, but they have been unified in their opinion that people with assaultive behaviors, who violate the law or who affect the safety of those who live, work and play downtown not be allowed to continue to do so. I hate being redundant, but it's not fair for anyone to be exposed to aberrant behaviors.
Sometimes those behaviors are the results of mental illness or drug misuse, and I understand that. But I also would not want my wife or my child to utilize a paid system, and to then be exposed to anyone else's bad behaviors. And when that happens and when we allow an environment like that to fester, it's sort of hard to reclaim it. Everything I have heard from community groups – including the city and county of Denver, who are going to reassign resources to us in the downtown area – is that we understand the plight of folks that are having problems. But we also understand that they're not representative of all the people who are committing all of the offenses that affect our customers. There are people who prey upon those folks, people who sell drugs, who willfully assault others, who have no regard for the safety and security of not only the transit environment, but the surrounding environment, and they are not authorized to be on our system. In short, folks here have had enough of that and demand changes.
There's no better time than now to reset the clock under new leadership to dedicate resources where they need to be. And that's cleaning up our large hubs and moving ourselves outward thereafter, to work with our outlying cities and to develop plans that reduce the incidence of thefts from vehicles (or of catalytic converters), illegal drug use and assaults. Another thing we’ve done differently is disseminating theft from motor vehicle report cards. We're going through lots, and if one of our officers observes, for example, a car with a laptop or purse sitting on the front seat, we're issuing a subtle reminder that it's everyone's responsibility to harden themselves against crime. We are promoting situational awareness while reinforcing that lots are patrolled. When thieves come into garages and parking lots and they see low-hanging fruit, they go for it, and the ultimate result is they come back because of how easy it was to steal from a location in the first place. So we’re using a visual deterrent, because placing the report cards on cars speaks to our customer; it says that we inspected each vehicle, because many people don't believe we take the time to do so. It's positive reinforcement because if you fail one of our inspections, we're only “grading” you because we don't want you to be a victim of crime, and you may be more cognizant of that the next time you park. When you harden yourself against crime, it has a net positive effect for the region. The feedback that the other law enforcement agencies get – at least some that I've gotten so far – is that it's a good idea and well worth doing, and it may even help them with some of their theft problems in other lots within their jurisdictions.
We're promoting the mantra, “How can we best, as an organization, help reduce victimization in our overall service area, and what partnerships can we establish with other departments to help drive crime reduction in our facilities and on our people movers.” We have a responsibility everywhere that we're at. What we are saying to our partners is expect more of an RTD PD presence, expect more of an interactive relationship, one of ownership in the collective public safety mission.
RTD has experienced an issue in recent months with copper wire theft, affecting rail service. How do we solve that problem? Has anyone been arrested?
I can't give insight into investigative tools that we use, but we have taken a proactive approach in investigating precious metal thefts and have been integral in making arrests. In the 2,400 square miles that I'm told equates to the size of the state of Delaware, we have been lucky. We realize that significantly more staffing is required, but until that happens, we have been able to leverage resources to our advantage. For instance, we have redeployed Allied staff in an evidence-based manner, placing personnel where crimes are most likely to occur. We are also working to renegotiate the same contract, disentangling duties like staffing second crewmembers on trains to focus more on our mission, overall system security. Until many of the aforementioned topics are addressed, there's no way we can be expected to be everywhere on a 24-hour basis.
Anything contrary to that is unrealistic, like stopping the rash of 15-second catalytic converter thefts that have plagued our nation. There needs to be stricter laws in place for people that buy or sell metal, period. That's not a police problem, that's a legislative and statutory issue that confounds lawmakers across the country. How can those types of things be monitored and enforced? That is not to say that I don't empathize with those folks who lose their catalytic converters to thefts – I am angry for them. The thieves deserve to be arrested and prosecuted. I would be remiss not to also mention that, pursuant to some of the things we're doing with technological resources, we have made some headway in that area, but I acknowledge there’s still a long way to go.
When a crime happens, we don't ignore it and throw our hands up in the air and say, “Hey, we're getting slammed by thefts again, oh, well.” The collective response is, we have to work together, and we have to work smarter, because criminals are doing so. RTD has a distinct advantage, though: We have operators and repairmen working 24 hours a day who can identify things that may be out of place. Everyone has to be part of the public safety mission; everyone has to contribute if they see someone in areas where they shouldn't be, or if they observe someone bending down and removing things from our rail lines. If we see theft or odd occurrences, you’re never bothering anyone by calling 911 immediately; even if no arrest is made, it helps us to geolocate crimes. There are far too many people working at RTD for us to not have a lot of internal calls about suspicious behaviors.
Tomorrow, Chief Fitzgerald addresses drug use on trains and planning for large events, and he shares his thoughts about what customers should know if they are considering a return to the RTD system at this point in the pandemic. To read that part of the conversation, visit the News Stop.