Photo by Ty Swenson
Metro Transit Chief Lisa Mulligan (background) explains how her division focuses on bus crimes at the West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting on Nov. 15.

Metro Transit Chief on policing public transportation: From terrorism to body odor

Metro Transit Chief of Police Lisa Mulligan stopped by the West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting on Nov. 15 to explain how her division of the King County Sheriff’s Office operates.

A small crew with a large beat
Starting out with the scope of Metro’s beat, Mulligan said there are over 9,000 bus stops in King County and a total of 68 Metro police for coverage. With such a large area and relatively small crew, Mulligan said her division prioritizes their presence based upon the number of complaints. As many would expect, most of her officers spend their time in the downtown business district. Downtown has the highest ridership and, therefore, the most problems, she said.

As for how Metro police work with King County Sheriffs and Seattle Police, Mulligan said it is a fluid system. If a bus driver calls for help in South King County or West Seattle for example, Mulligan said Metro dispatch will often ask local law enforcement to respond to the call. She said if her officers are more than five minutes away in response time, they will call for assistance.

On occasion Metro police will patrol areas beyond downtown if enough complaints warrant the shift, Mulligan said, citing occasional patrols of the 15th and Roxbury stop in White Center as an example of “emphasis work.”

Anti-terrorism team, detectives and undercover
Mulligan said she employs a team of three officers and a bomb dog dedicated to anti-terrorism.

“We are aware of the fact that buses are a pretty vulnerable target … but we really can’t focus all of our energy on every bus,” she said, so that team focuses a lot of their attention on the transit tunnel downtown.

There is also a team of detectives that investigate any crime that needs follow-up, such as a bus driver assault where the suspect gets way, she said.

“What we know is when we put patrol officers in uniform on a bus, nothing happens in front of them,” Mulligan said. “There is no crime that happens, everyone pays their fare, everyone puts their beers out, nobody behaves badly … but we know its happening.”

To that end, Mulligan said seven plains-clothes undercover officers are deployed to catch bad actors.

Most common bus crimes
“In transit … most (issues) are related to person-on-person crimes” including theft of electronics and arguments that escalate into physical altercations, she said.

In addition, Mulligan said Metro deals with a lot of alcohol consumption, fare evasion, “social issues” (which she defined as anyone acting erratically, not necessarily committing a crime but making riders and drivers uncomfortable and in fear of their safety) and occasionally “sexual fondling.”

A few suggestions for transit riders from Mulligan: If someone asks to see your phone, asks what time it is, etc., just refuse the request as they may be trying to snag your electronics and dash away. If you are sitting in an area of the bus where trouble seems to be brewing – be it a fight or someone threatening you personally – move to the front of the bus as close to the driver as possible.

“What we have more often that any other precinct is we have to use force more often (in an arrest),” Mulligan added. “We are dealing with a more volatile group more often … we see a big concentration of that in our base.”

Mulligan said 250 buses have “high-clarity” cameras on board to catch crime on tape and she said they have been great for solving crimes that require follow-up investigation.

Civil and criminal penalties
For a complete list of criminal and civil penalties specific to riding transit, visit King County Metro’s Code of Conduct webpage.

A few civil penalties that stick out include up to $250 in fines for eating or drinking on the bus (spill-safe lids on containers are the exception coffee-drinkers, so you are in the clear) and allowing your animal to leave waste on transit property

Criminal penalties (up to a $1000 fine and 90 days in jail) include playing music from a device without headphones, smoking or carrying a smoldering pipe or cigarette on board, littering, drinking alcohol on the bus, failure to pay the fare and “bringing onto transit property odors which unreasonably disturb others … whether such odors arise from one’s person, clothes, articles, accompanying animal or any other source.”

“Ride Safe, Ride Smart,” as the Metro slogan says, and don’t forget to shower.

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