- Hello, riders. (Photo: John Hendel)
With 420 sworn security officers and just over 100 special security officers, the Metro Transit Police is tasked with covering a 1,500-mile Transit Zone — they're the only tristate police force in the United States that's not federal. The force's few hundred members are burdened with a significant amount of territory to cover, and as such, a lot of information and legal issues to coordinate. MTPD Chief Michael Taborn is well acquainted with these difficulties. The Prince Georges County resident has been part of Metro security since 1974, two years before President Gerald Ford even signed the bill authorizing the formal commission of the Metro Transit Police. He's led the MTPD for the past three years and amid Metro's communications refocusing, his police force has been reaching out to Metro riders on crime issues in new ways as well.
The tall chief stood in front of a half dozen members of the public as well as representatives of the Riders Advisory Council Wednesday evening last week and explained the difficulties of juggling so many jurisdictions and coordinating with so many local and federal police agencies.
"Officers sometimes carry around nine different citation books," Taborn explained, talking in a matter-of-fact tone at the front of the large Jackson Graham Building meeting room. They need to be prepared to know and deal with the laws of Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia at any given time. He called information-sharing procedures and meetings "probably the most important thing that we do."
Taborn's Metro police have taken a renewed commitment to communication and strategy to heart in certain visible ways in recent weeks and months. Take the last two weeks, for instance — MTPD have coordinated with Metro's communications team to reach out and seek public input on two cases. The first involved a stabbing and attempted robbery near the Huntington Metro station on the morning of September 19. WMATA immediately tweeted out the news and identified the two suspects sought ("late teen/early 20s, BM, 5'6-5'7 dreds") with the appropriate numbers to call. That message has been retweeted 32 times. On September 26, Metro released a press release asking for further information in another MTPD case. The short release referred to a crime committed earlier in the week:
Metro Transit Police detectives are seeking the public’s assistance as they investigate a shooting believed to have occurred near a bus stop in Oxon Hill, Md., yesterday afternoon.
The incident is believed to have occurred shortly before 8:30 a.m. yesterday near the intersection of Glassmanor Drive and Irvington Street in Oxon Hill. It is not known whether the victim, a 53-year-old man, was physically at the bus stop when he was shot.
The victim, who has a cognitive disability, is believed to have traveled by bus and train to a church in the District. Upon arrival, others noticed that the man did not look well and called EMS. Shortly thereafter, it was determined that he was suffering from a gunshot wound.
The man was transported to an area hospital where he remains in stable condition.
The crime sounds heartbreaking. WMATA asked people with relevant information to call the Metro Transit Police. In a way, this seems innovative and good to crowdsource the public's help and offer an apparently transparent window into some of the Metro crime being committed. MTPD has reached out in similar ways before, as in past May's carjacking case.
The way that the MTPD is operating reflects broader changes at WMATA and a transformation in how they're doing business — specifically, the transit agency hopes to target the areas that matter and make them count. Does tweeting out this repair information help writers? Does talking to this journalist help? Does providing this spreadsheet make a difference to the quality of WMATA ridership and service? Sometimes this reevaluated outreach manifests in social media campaigns, in town halls, in the ability to upload money to your SmarTrip card online. Other times it means abandoning elements that WMATA deems to not work so well.
Case in point: WMATA features a MTPD blotter to chronicle the various crimes handled by the department, similar to the blotters many police departments offer. Its last update, however, was on March 31, 2011 after what looked like a steady and regularly updated month of infractions that included intent to distribute marijuana, a warning about consuming drinks, obstruction of justice, bike theft, and various other transit violations. Why did these regular and transparent updates cease half a year ago? I asked Chief Taborn and chief spokesperson Dan Stessel in person last Wednesday after the Riders Advisory Council town hall.