T keeps expanding but police don’t keep pace

Push for T, State Police merger goes nowhere

As the geographical footprint of the MBTA keeps expanding, the resources of the T’s police force keep getting stretched thinner and thinner.

The transit agency is preparing to expand west into Medford and Somerville, and has plans to extend south to Fall River and New Bedford. It began summer service to Cape Cod last year and more recently added weekend night service, which stretches the T’s police force by extending the number of hours some officers have to work.

The 230 existing MBTA transit police officers cover subway, bus, trolley, and commuter rail routes extending into 175 cities and towns. The T plans to hire another 28 officers this year, giving the agency roughly the same number of law enforcement officials as SEPTA, the Philadelphia-area transit system with a similar mix of transit lines. But SEPTA’s 260 transit officers are responsible for a system that spans 2,200 square miles, or roughly one officer for every 8.5 square miles. The T’s force, by contrast, oversees a network that covers 3,244 square miles, or about one officer for every 14 square miles.

“That’s a pretty small police force to handle those kinds of obligations,” said Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board.

T police officials as well as the MBTA Advisory Board say the most cost-effective way to provide transit security would be to merge the T police into the State Police. In 2011, the advisory board recommended that a special unit cover the inner core of the T’s service area and that existing State Police units oversee the outer core.

The advisory board found that merging the two police forces would shift about $40 million in annual costs from the MBTA to the Executive Office of Public Safety and generate approximately $453 million in overall savings over 10 years by eliminating duplication. The T, for example, currently operates its own training academy. Consolidating explosive detection services and purchases of police vehicles, communication equipment, weapons, and other gear would also generate savings, according to the advisory board.

But merger talk has not translated into action on Beacon Hill, partly because of resistance by the State Police to absorbing officers from a different law enforcement culture. After a bitter fight that had gone on since the mid-1960s, the State Police were forced to absorb the capitol, metropolitan district, and registry of motor vehicles police in 1992. But hard feelings have lingered.

The issue has largely been dormant since 2007, the last time there was any serious debate about merging the two forces. At that time, the State Police estimated the initial cost of bringing the transit police up to state police standards on everything from vehicles to weapons at roughly $11 million. Salaries, benefits, seniority issues, patrol areas, training methods, and other differences between the two police forces were all cited as issues that would have to be reconciled. The merger legislation died on Beacon Hill.

In 2011, Richard Davey, then the MBTA general manager, noted in a CommonWealth interview that merging the T police into the State Police would not offer any significant cost savings. Davey now heads MassDOT. A 2013 merger bill sponsored by Rep. Joseph Wagner, the Chicopee Democrat and the former House transportation committee co-chair, never gathered any steam. In March, the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security dispatched the bill to a study, the ultimate death knell for unpopular proposals.

Other ideas, such as merging a portion of the transit police with the Boston Police and ceding responsibility for outer areas to local police forces, have not gained any traction either.

The MBTA Police Association , the transit police officers’ union, has long supported a merger with the State Police, but top T police officials are not as keen on the subject. The MBTA declined to make Transit Police Chief Paul MacMillian available for an interview. After a Harvard forum marking the anniversary of the Boston marathon bombing, state Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral also declined to comment on the issue, noting that the topic had yet to come up doing her tenure.

“The notion of merging the transit police with the State Police surfaces from time to time,” MassDOT spokesman Michael Verseckes said in a statement. “The agency has yet to be presented with compelling information that merging the two entities would enhance safety for MBTA customers across the system, produce efficiencies in operational functions, or realize cost savings to justify the merger.”

MBTA police officers currently patrol four areas: downtown Boston and southwest, south, and north of the city. Transit police working north of Boston, for example, patrol an area from North Station to Fitchburg, Haverhill, and Lowell, so the department must rely on local police in outer cities and towns to respond to accidents or other incidents involving MBTA vehicles or passengers.

Last October, Andover police were first on the scene of an evening rush hour accident involving a SUV and a MBTA train near the Andover MBTA commuter rail station. Driving north on Interstate 93 from Somerville, Bob Marino, president of the MBTA Police Association, and another officer arrived on the scene more than 40 minutes after the accident.

Sometimes the delayed response time of T police to incidents causes friction with local police departments, according to Marino. “They say, ‘Hey, look, we don’t have time to deal with the MBTA’s problems,” he explains. “Why is my unit handling your call?”

Andover police commander Charles Heseltine sounded resigned to the situation. “Unfortunately, it is part of the business,” he said.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo did not answer a question regarding whether the MBTA’s Green Line and South Coast Rail expansion plans would merit a re-evaluation of the size of the transit police force. “That decision does not have to be made today,” he said.

Expanded weekend hours to 3 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings have caused some headaches for transit police officers. The force currently depends on officers to volunteer for the expanded weekend shifts with the most junior officers filling any open slots, according to Marino.

The Cape Flyer, operated by the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority in collaboration with MassDOT and the T, runs from Boston’s South Station to Buzzards Bay and Hyannis presents a different set of issues. After a successful trial run last year, MassDOT made the service permanent.

But due to a quirk in state law, the transit police have very limited jurisdiction over the towns on Cape Cod that the Cape Flyer travels through, according to Marino. Thomas Cahir, the regional transit authority administrator, said he is unconcerned and has discussed area safety issues with local police chiefs along the route.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

“We’re pretty confident that we have adequate attention given to [the Cape Flyer] in the event of some sort of incident,” he said. There were no major issues on the route last year, according to Cahir.

But Marino said the Cape Flyer is another example of a transit service operating with little or no police presence. “How do we patrol out there?” asked Marino. “The fact of the matter is, we don’t.”