Rocky Neptun has been riding the San Diego Trolley, without issue, for 15 years. But on the morning of June 29, he was shocked to find more than 40 armed Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) security personnel waiting at the San Ysidro station, demanding tickets.
“In all my years of riding the trolley I have never seen this show of militarized force,” Neptun said. “Access on and off the train was blocked at each door while officers demanded proof of tickets. Those without tickets and identification were handcuffed.”
MTS Trolley spokesperson Judy Leitner initially rebuked Neptun's account, saying that security “had two people assigned to San Ysidro on [June 29] at 10:15 a.m. and two who were just in the general South Bay area... so it isn't anything like 40 officers.”
Calls, however, to the interim director of MTS security, Larry Savoy, revealed that Neptun was not exaggerating. Savoy said the incident was not isolated and is part of a broader Special Enforcement Unit that convenes each Wednesday morning and evening to check 100 percent of riders at random stations throughout the trolley system.
“We literally draw station names out of a hat,” Savoy told CityBeat. “Then we deploy our officers [to that station]. They basically do all the... fare checking and loitering enforcement. The idea is that people know that they need a ticket. If they see only one person checking, then maybe they think the chances of being checked are slim.”
The San Ysidro station sees the most commuters in the San Diego trolley system and last month's station check was supposed to reflect and accommodate for the high-capacity zone.
Neptun questioned this heavy show of force, insisting that checking tickets could more easily be done train-to-train without such an intimidating display.
“On occasion I have seen four to five trolley guards descend on a station and board separate trains to check on whether riders have purchased tickets, which is a perfectly reasonable activity,” he said. “But to surround a train, blocking the exit doors by over 40 armed uniformed officers and only being allowed to pass one by one was a frightening experience for everyone on that train.”
Savoy countered that it wasn't excessive. “Not at San Ysidro, at least,” he said. “We could use 140 officers. We only have 40 to 50 officers to check all trains coming in, boards and de-boards, plus the patrons in the station.... The crowds are tremendous and overwhelming.”
Leitner said MTS has the right to check anyone at a trolley station. “At the point where you come into contact with the station, you have entered a ‘fare-paid zone,'” she said. “Once you enter you must have a ticket or be in the process of buying a ticket and we can inspect anyone in the fair-paid zone to see that they do have a ticket.”
In the course of checking tickets, officers may come across people with outstanding warrants, in which case they can detain or arrest suspects, Savoy said.
Trolley riders who don't have tickets are usually given a citation, he said.
As for the armed officers Neptun encountered, MTS Marketing Director Jessica Krieg said there are two types of officers on the trolley lines, the unarmed code compliance inspectors (CCI) and the mostly-armed security personnel.
“Security is armed because their role is more security/police related as opposed to code compliance which is primarily checking fares,” she said. “The mission of armed officers is security for the trolley, and they assist CCIs with patron counts, issuing citations, fare checking and making arrests.”
Usually, both an armed security officer and an unarmed compliance inspector walk the beat together at San Diego trolley stations. Currently, MTS has a disproportionate number of armed to unarmed personnel monitoring trolleys-27 CCIs and roughly 125 security officers.