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Sneed: Metra cops concerned over security

A Crystal Lake Police officer stands watch front Metrtraafter fatal accident Cary 2007. | File

A Crystal Lake Police officer stands watch in front of a Metra train after a fatal accident in Cary in 2007. | File

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Updated: April 25, 2013 7:12AM

The Metra file . . .

Do you think security is all it could be on Metra?

Think again.

Sneed is told Metra, the system of 11 rail lines connecting Chicago to six counties and 241 stations in Northeastern Illinois, may not be as safe as you think it is.

“We have been derailed by understaffing, poor equipment and leadership without a mission,” said a Metra police source.

“And we were carrying guns we weren’t certified to carry for three years until January.”

“If you think you are safe on a Metra train, you are not,” he said.

A spokesman for the rail agency disagrees.

“Our system is safe,” said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis.

“We have a good team and are continually looking at ways to enhance our safety and security practices,” he said. “We routinely work with federal, state and local police agencies to coordinate our activities and are even doing geo mapping [mapping crime data] to target crime sites.”

Rattled by the death of former Metra chief Phil Pagano, who committed suicide by stepping in front of a train in 2010 after the disclosure he personally misused Metra funds, the transit agency has limped on after spending a ton of cash to track Pagano’s fraud.

Sneed is told the security department is led by Sharon Austin, who used to manage Metra ticket agents and is a holdover from the Pagano regime.

“We’ve been derailed by understaffing and if you think Metra has assigned security to ride the trains to keep you safe, think again,” the police source added. “It’s not happening.

“Metra is the second largest transit system in the country; there is not a single department of the top five cities that has less than 200 police officers — New York has over 1,000,” said the source.

“And we have a police staff of little over 100 — and only 80 of those actually work patrol.

“Our cars are old; our radios don’t work properly, our communication system stinks; and the head of our security department, Sharon Austin, doesn’t have one lick of experience in policing,” said another Metra police officer, one of several Metra police officers Sneed spoke to during the past week.

The bottom line: “I don’t like pretending to be someone I’m not,” said yet another Metra cop. “I’m a police officer without the backup to be one.”

In response, Metra claims a new radio system, made by Starcom, has been purchased with a $1.5 million dollar grant from the Department of Homeland Security and will be deployed in June.

But the new Metra shocker is an eye popper.

Sneed has learned the Metra police carried guns, .357 Sig Sauers, for three years they weren’t even qualified to use until January.

“We were carrying .357 Sigs that we didn’t even have enough ammunition [to be certified with] and were not state qualified to use,” said one of the Metra police sources.

“We were supposed to take a test every year to qualify for weapons use, but it kept getting postponed because we were told it was too expensive.”

“Just imagine the state liability if an officer fired a shot and missed and hit someone else during that time,” the source added. “You can still get sued if the shooting was justified. But if it hit a bystander — imagine that legal action.”

Sneed is told the security firm of Hillard Heintze, a consulting company founded by highly respected former Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard and former U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Arnette Heintze, was hired last October to study Metra security.

When the firm discovered the Metra police, who were being issued new guns — Glocks — weren’t qualified by state law to use the guns they already had, “they went ballistic,” a Metra police source said.

“The guy from Hillard Heintze was furious,” the source added. “They wanted it rectified immediately. They couldn’t even believe we didn’t have enough ammo [to practice with] the old guns we had.”

Starting in December, about 105 Metra police officers were rushed to the Illinois State Police gun range in Lockport to await the last minute arrival of new ammunition before their two-day long training began.

Gillis claims the reason they did not take the state gun tests was because “we simply couldn’t get the number of munitions . . . needed for the guns [.357 Sig Sauers] to recertify. I think the munitions were in demand in Iraq. We were not the only agency running into this issue. That is why we shifted to purchasing the Glocks — because we could get the ammunition we needed.”

Metra insists that the cars that the officers drive are safe. Gillis tells Sneed that Metra “would never send anyone out in one of the fleet’s 38 cars if it wasn’t safe. The average age of a car is 3.8 years. We may be brutal with them, but they are safe.”

Sneed is also told Metra crime is up at the Electric District, the train line’s most dangerous route, with at least six robberies in March.

“Metra will assign one solitary police officer with one car to patrol the locations of recent crimes on weekends — but they will bring in special operations and many officers working around the clock should any Metra materials [like copper wire] be stolen,” said a police source.

In 2006, Metra police officer Thomas Cook was killed while serving in a one-man robbery detail. “We swore it would never happen again, but we are now back to one-man robbery details,” an officer told Sneed. “Overtime has been cut.”

Just recently, two Metra officers were injured while working during the St. Patrick’s celebrations. One was stabbed four times in the leg; another had ribs broken.

“My worst nightmare is walking up alone to seven guys in a Metra station and asking them to leave,” said another Metra cop. “Our only communication when something is happening is to the dispatcher. If help is around the corner, they don’t hear us.”

Last week, Sneed inquired about a man reportedly shot at multiple times in an attempted robbery by an offender who appeared to have been wielding a gun, possibly a BB gun, at the Ivanhoe station in Riverdale on a recent Sunday afternoon.

The Metra response: “Don’t know anything about that,” said Gillis. “The person who would know about things like that has never heard about it. And they would know.”

But it did happen. Sneed tracked down Wayne Lesnik, of Riverdale, who told Sneed he had been interviewed by a Metra cop after the incident.

“I know a bit about guns, but I wasn’t sure if it was a real gun. I was getting a ticket at the machine at the Ivanhoe station and I had money in my hand. He had on a mask or ski mask. I wouldn’t give him any money and I had a bag I kind of swung at him,” Lesnik told Sneed.

“But I was in a hurry, so I decided to take a chance it wasn’t a real gun and step on the train. That’s when he pulled the trigger. The police officer looked at the tape and said he thought it was a BB gun. I guess I was a lucky guy. What if it had been real?”

The Metra internal security study by Hillard and Heintze is expected to be completed this year.

Can’t wait to read it.

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