RTD has ‘eyes’ on its system to keep riders safe

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The young man in sweatpants and a backpack loitering on the platform at the Lakewood-Wadsworth light rail station is about to see his afternoon take a turn for the worse.

Watched on an RTD camera from a control center five miles away, the man and a partner have been flashing cash and what look like illicit substances toward various pedestrians. A maintenance worker texted RTD on the Transit Watch app, and the control center zoomed in a lens – one of thousands of security cameras monitoring RTD operations across the metro area.

RTD dispatcher Erica Baker radios two undercover Lakewood detectives working a regular transit security shift, and they head toward the train stop. The too-obvious loiterers will be questioned, moved along or detained, and the command center will shift its attention to images from some of the other cameras.

“I get here at 5 in the morning,” Baker said. “I like coming in and not knowing what’s going to happen.”

Everything will happen, sooner or later. RTD operates on high-traffic real estate through 44 jurisdictions in a diverse metro area of nearly 3 million people. Its buses and trains, meanwhile, draw rolling crowds representing all facets of public behavior.

Through tips or their own observations, RTD’s approximately 700 security personnel respond to dozens of incidents a day, around the clock, from violent crime to homeless residents sleeping in station elevators to verbal assaults on operators.

This year’s Safety Week finds RTD in the middle of tests of even more advanced technology for its buses: live interior cameras with two-way communication that will allow the security command center to handle dangerous passenger situations in real time.

Personal security pairs with road-and-rail safety as twin pillars of RTD operations, according to safety officials. Safety for passengers, employees and the public is just as important as the transit mission, Transit Police Chief Bob Grado said.            

“We want people to know how serious we are about safety and the investment we’ve made,” said Grado, who oversees a blend of full-time RTD police, contracted officers from metro-area departments trained in transit issues, and security contractors who focus on fare and ticketing cases.

Two different RTD command centers handle 55,000 emergency dispatch queries a year. An increasing number of those contacts come in as pictures or texts through the Transit Watch mobile app, which also automatically gives dispatchers a location.

The command center bristles with those contacts all day and night, from a room crammed with TV and computer monitors like a NASA launch control. Positions of unfolding emergencies and the nearest security officers appear on mapping software called Situator, installed with a Federal Transit Administration grant. Press an emergency call button at an RTD stop, and Situator instantly lights up.

Each new layer of security fits into a larger plan that itself constantly adapts to RTD expansions and operational changes. Those emergency buttons, for example? Security specs call for them at least every 50 feet on a train platform. So on a new 150-foot platform, designers need to find optimal, high-profile places for at least three of the vertical black call boxes. And RTD has a full-time design team of three people just for that purpose, dubbed “cpted” for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.

Dispatchers like Baker connect those in need to those who can help, drawing on decades of experience distributing emergency aid for cities, sheriff’s offices and other transit centers. And that experience teaches that sending in troops isn’t always the best answer. Grado and Baker call it “choosing their battles.”

As the weather turns colder, one of Baker’s first tasks in the morning is scanning camera shots of train station elevators where the homeless have slept for the night. Those emergency call buttons are two-way communication, so Baker can get on the microphone and ask them to wake up and move out.

“Just like a city,” Grado said, “we get everything.”