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UTA’s vexing police issues

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The past few days haven't been good ones for the Utah Transit Authority. First it was revealed that two transit officers used official letterhead to buy an assault rifle, which is illegal for them to have. Then came reports the sheriff's office found drugs, alcohol and weapons that transit officers were storing in a safe in Midvale. The problem? The UTA has no authority to maintain such a locker.

Now Salt Lake City firefighters say a train kept going earlier this month even though a car was on fire eight feet away from the tracks. A fire captain had asked the train to stop out of concern for the safety of its passengers.

These incidents demonstrate a need for UTA to review its security needs at a time when mass transit is growing rapidly along the Wasatch Front. The answer may lie in better cooperation with local police agencies, and a reassessment of its own security system.

UTA contracts with Wackenhut Corp. to provide transit officers. But these are only "special function" officers. They are not endowed with the same powers as a sheriff's deputy or city police officer. State law won't allow UTA to have its own police force. The officers are armed, and they can detain someone who is causing trouble, but they cannot make an arrest.

TRAX is, for the most part, a safe mode of transportation. But occasionally someone carries a weapon onboard, deals in illegal drugs, is drunk or causes other problems that happen on any other big-city transit system. The same situations occasionally arise on buses. UTA officials say local police departments aren't always quick to respond to problems, particularly if they consider them to be minor. Often, transit officers have no choice but to release the person who was causing trouble, but before doing so, they confiscate the drugs, alcohol or other things that may be considered a threat to safety. They hold these items in a safe until police come to collect or destroy them.

Even though they aren't authorized to keep such items, UTA transit officers don't have any choice. And, again, UTA officials say local police have little interest in responding. UTA director John Inglish disputes reports this week that county sheriff's deputies suddenly discovered the evidence vault. He said his officers had tried repeatedly to get deputies to come.

As for driving a train near a burning car, that may forever remain a question of split-second judgments. UTA officials say a TRAX supervisor at the scene felt there was no immediate danger. In any event, transit officers say they have no authority to tell a train to stop. Trains are controlled by a central dispatch, which has to decide whether an incident is worth delays up and down the line.

Two things are evident. The first is that UTA must re-examine its contract with Wackenhut. Some security officers apparently think they have greater powers than the contract, or the law, allows. The second is that UTA and local police agencies should have a better understanding of each other's needs and a greater willingness to cooperate.

That won't be easy to achieve. Not only does TRAX travel through five separate police jurisdictions, the entire UTA bus and train system includes almost 90 jurisdictions across six counties. This is another strong reason to consider consolidating police services, at least in Salt Lake County.