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Report: Metra police mission ‘antiquated and very unclear’

A Metrpolice car patrols an overpass 100th Street South Side as MetrElectric Line trapasses.  (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

A Metra police car patrols an overpass at 100th Street on the South Side as a Metra Electric Line train passes. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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Updated: February 24, 2014 1:25PM

A scathing report by a private security firm hired to assess Metra police operations exposed major flaws in the police force’s “antiquated” priorities that focused more on protecting property than passengers.

The report, commissioned by Metra, painted a picture of a police force not properly trained to carry the guns they were issued, one in which officers rarely ride trains and make less than one arrest per day, one that’s not fully prepared to respond in a coordinated fashion to terrorist threats, and one that was working with outdated and shabby equipment.

The 114-page report, which cost $200,000 and was done by security firm Hillard Heintze LLC, was released Wednesday night at a hastily called news conference after it became clear a copy had been leaked to the media. The Sun-Times had previously filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the report, completed in August 2012, but was denied.

A laundry list of problems was aired in the report, including a lapse in gun training.

Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed first reported last March that Metra police officers did not meet the minimum state qualifications on firearms training, some for as long as two to three years. Officers were rushed to gun ranges to meet yearly required standards almost immediately after investigators from Hillard Heintze became aware of the problem. The security firm was co-founded by former Chicago Police Supt. Terry Hillard.

Metra interim Executive Director Don Orseno said Wednesday he was unaware of any Metra police officers who lacked the proper training ever having discharged a weapon in the line of duty.

The report detailed interviews with police officers asking what they perceived to be the main job of the 105-member Metra Police Department in which many answered “to protect critical infrastructure” or “getting the trains moving after an accident,” but “almost no one indicated his or her job is to protect the passengers or employees.”

It also repeatedly pointed out that Metra needed a shift in institutional mindset and mission.

“Metra’s mission is antiquated and very unclear, particularly in respect to its insufficient prioritization of programs and practices to ensure the safety and security of Metra’s transit passengers,” the report stated.

The report also highlighted a lack of interaction between Metra and other local agencies to address crime or counter terrorism efforts.

“Metra needs to do more to address deficits in areas such as intelligence collection, training, and coordination with critical third party agencies,” the report stated.

It also noted that squad cars had “excessive mileage and are generally unreliable” and that communications equipment experienced dead zones and computers in squads do not function properly.

The report also found patrol assignments out of whack, resulting in major overtime spending that eclipses the generally accepted police standard of spending five to six percent of a budget for overtime. The figure for Metra has averaged 17 percent the last few years, resulting in nearly $2.5 million spent on overtime in 2012. An analysis of shift schedules for patrols “was not based on any identifiable strategy,” the report stated. A Sun-Times analysis in 2010 found one Metra officer earned $66,864 in overtime, more than doubling his salary. The report stated that a Metra official referenced a study that determined it was cheaper to pay overtime than hire more employees, but the same Metra official could not locate or provide the study when asked for it.

“Once we redefine our mission we’ll be able to figure out what we need, what proper resources that we have to put in place and that will eventually drive down our overtime costs,” Orseno said Wednesday.

The report recommended officers be assigned to work during peak travel times and focus less attention to protecting overnight equipment.

It also found low morale to be a key issue. One of the greatest challenges will be re-energizing the troops and reinstalling confidence among officers in leadership, it stated.

The report also focused importance on hiring a capable chief. Former Metra Police Chief James Sanford retired last week after 30 years of service.

In the interim, Hillard Heintze didn’t look far to fill the role. Hillard Heintze senior supervisor Harvey Radney — a former Chicago Police Deputy Superintendent — was hired last week for 60 days at a salary of $100,000 while Hillard Heintze assists in the search for a permanent chief.

The report lists 50 recommendations to help Metra transform itself. Many of them have already been carried out, others will be implemented soon, Orseno said Wednesday.

“Our mission is going to be refocused,” said Orseno. “We increased the uniform covert police presence on trains. Since June of 2013, we’ve ridden over 3,400 trains.

The report comes on the heels of a patronage scandal that rocked the agency, causing the exit of six board members last year.

Arnette Heintze, CEO of Hillard Heintze, said Wednesday he expects Metra to adopt an overhauled “roadmap” in the next 60 days that will guide the commuter rail agency into the future.

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