RTD proposal: Replace security guards with unarmed social workers

The Regional Transportation District would cancel its contract with Allied Universal Security, whose guards assaulted a Denver artist, under a proposed resolution that seeks to remove most armed officers from trains and transit stations.

The move would be among the most drastic steps taken by a U.S. transit agency in response to activists’ nationwide calls to defund police. The resolution cites concern about security officers’ run-ins with the homeless, people of color and other disadvantaged groups, and it would direct RTD to hire outreach workers — including professionals with mental-health training — to replace them.

But ahead of its first formal hearing at a committee on Tuesday, Director Shontel Lewis’ proposal is drawing some skepticism on RTD’s elected board, as well as concerns about safety from the operators’ union.

Lewis said she was motivated not only by the severe beating of Raverro Stinnett inside a Union Station bathroom in 2018, but also by this summer’s demonstrations calling for law enforcement reform.

“These interactions — maybe not to the degree that, unfortunately, Mr. Stinnett had to suffer — happen quite often to communities, particularly Black communities and communities of color,” said Lewis, who was elected later that year to represent a district that includes northeast Denver.

The resolution would set in motion the termination of Allied’s $22 million annual contract by the end of the year and the ending of agreements allowing officers with metro police departments to moonlight as security guards for RTD. The transit system uses around 600 outside armed, uniformed officers, and the proposal would leave armed security to RTD’s dozen or so in-house transit police officers.

The proposal, if approved, also would kick off a two-year working group to evaluate RTD’s approach to security and recommend alternatives. Depending on that guidance, it would direct RTD leaders to use the estimated $27 million spent each year on outside security for “the expansion of mental, behavioral, and social supports, such as social workers, medical professionals, homeless outreach workers, transit ambassador/conductors, and any additional support identified, to respond to constituent interactions.”

It’s still unclear if a majority of RTD’s 15 elected directors are on board with the idea. The 5:30 p.m. remote meeting of the Operations & Customer Service Committee will be their first full discussion after some informal talks.

RTD Directors Kate Williams and Jeff Walker signed onto the resolution tentatively. While Walker says he supports the general idea, the resolution still needs work.

“It still has a lot to be desired. It’s not done,” said Walker, who represents southwest Denver and parts of adjacent suburbs. “But I signed onto it to put it on the agenda because I think it warrants a discussion.”

The late-night beating of Stinnett, who was harassed while waiting to take a train home after spending the evening at a downtown gala, resulted in the firings of Allied guard James Hunter and colleagues who stood by. Hunter and two other officers pleaded guilty to criminal charges in connection with the incident.

Stinnett sued Allied, RTD and the fired guards earlier this year and has given recent interviews to media outlets, including The Denver Post. Allied, which has expressed regret for the incident, sought a gag order in U.S. District Court in Denver to prevent further public comments.

On Friday, a judge denied that request.

Since the assault, RTD says, it has revamped the Allied contract to improve oversight.

RTD spokesperson Pauletta Tonilas declined to comment on Lewis’ resolution because it’s early in the board process. But she said that aside from the “egregious” incident, Allied’s security officers fulfill a need, providing people not only to check tickets on trains but also to respond to situations that affect riders’ safety.

“We have many police calls to our facilities every week,” she said.

RTD has a mental health counselor who performs outreach work, and the agency has sought grant funding to hire more. The agency also has been evaluating whether the second crew member required aboard commuter rail trains by federal regulations should be a security officer — the current practice — or another type of worker, Tonilas said.

Allied’s most recent contract took effect in mid-2019 and runs for three years. It allows RTD to terminate the agreement for convenience, without penalty.

On Monday, Lance Longenbohn, the president of the RTD operators’ union, emailed Lewis and other directors to say he hoped the resolution would take a more balanced approach.

Instead, he wrote, “it virtually removes all security, and I cannot agree with that. For several years now, assaults on operators have been on a steady increase on a nation-wide basis.  The threat of injury and — sadly — death has become a reality for our folks.”

Walker, too, suggested that cutting outside guards entirely might not be the best approach.

“I know that not everybody is comfortable with the idea of not having armed security people out there,” he said. “So maybe we don’t need as many.”

Asked about that concern, Lewis said she recognizes a need for a law-enforcement response to some incidents. She suggested RTD’s small police force could handle that, in many cases.

“My hope is not that we are ridding ourselves of security but that we are thinking of security differently,” she said. “That’s the intent of the resolution.”

Director Natalie Menten, whose district is in Jefferson County, says she’s open to the idea of reducing the scope of Allied’s contract, especially since RTD needs to save money. But she has a larger concern.

“We are not tasked with being a mental counseling organization” by state law, she said. “We’ve got enough problems with the point A to point B that we were tasked with,” in terms of providing transit service.

The committee could approve, amend or table the proposal Tuesday. If it advances the resolution, the soonest it could appear on the board’s regular agenda is Aug. 18.

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