Transit officials react to video of officers standing by as girl gets beaten

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

SEATTLE—The release of video footage showing a 15-year-old girl being beaten in front of three security officers in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel on Jan. 28 has spurred both public and industry scrutiny. The video shows three officers allowing the attack to occur, literally at their feet, claiming later that they were unable to intervene due to policy and liability restrictions.

While the King County Metro has publicly announced it will reexamine its policy forbidding unarmed guards from physically intervening in criminal and suspicious behavior, as reported by the Seattle Times, the incident could have serious public-confidence repercussions, said several transit experts.

Having such “observe and report” policies in place, which jeopardize the employment of an officer for stopping or preventing an incident, sends the wrong message to guards and the public, said Daniel Hartwig, manager of security programs at Bay Area Rapid Transit District and commander of the patrol bureau for the BART Police Department. “We don’t want to encourage any citizen or employee to take action, but when they do and they prevent someone from being hurt, the last thing we’re going to do is reprimand them,” he said.

“We have fully sworn police department, so there’s no gray area and our officers have a responsibility to act. If they don’t act in that situation then they we will be disciplined.”

The situation in Seattle hits home with Hartwig and BART. In November 2009, BART faced a similar situation when surveillance video caught an officer removing and arresting an intoxicated passenger from a train. When the officer subdued the passenger against a glass wall, the glass shattered causing injuries to both the passenger and the officer. “When you first view the video it looks like the officer is using excessive force, but when you slow down the video and after we talked to the 34 witnesses, everything the officer did was by the rules,” he said. “If that had been a security guard without authority, it would’ve been trouble.”

It’s that concern over liability that likely contributed to Seattle’s policy not to interfere in violent situations and instead maintain an “observe and report” approach to guarding. “Security guards are often not trained to intercede in these types of activity and don’t have lethal or non-lethal weapons, so the conundrum they face is: Do they put themselves in harm’s way because of what is occurring?” Hartwig said. “Security guards are making a pretty limited wage and it’s a difficult situation.”

But, many argue it’s imperative to give security personnel the ability to respond to incidents. While the Minneapolis/St. Paul Metro Transit has its own police department with sworn officers and does not use contract guards, Bob Gibbons, director of customer services, said that he sees parallels between this situation and what the agency faces with its 1,400 bus operators. “We expect them to stay in the driver’s seat of the bus and use the radio telephone to report incidents,” he said. “However they’re permitted by our policy to intervene only to defend themselves or if they feel capable of defending customers, but their primary objective is to report to an officer.”

Of course, the general public has vastly different expectations from bus drivers than security officers. As they should, say security officials interviewed. It’s when those expectations are unfounded, when security officers are essentially living, breathing security cameras imbued with basically the same powers as bus drivers, that incidents like the Seattle tunnel beating are likely to occur.