A transit officer at the La Mesa trolley station / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Three years ago, with the consent of elected officials, the Metropolitan Transit System officials cracked down on people not paying trolley fares and other violators.

At a meeting of the agency’s board in February 2017, MTS Police Chief Manny Guaderrama said that by doubling the number of MTS code compliance officers, the agency could increase enforcement on its transit lines and potentially reduce the agency’s roughly 3 percent fare evasion rate.

There were no public questions about what that increased enforcement could mean for riders. Instead, two MTS board members — both of them San Diego City Council members — focused their questions on wages and budget impacts tied to a plan that also called for a reduction in the agency’s contracted security force.

The agency’s punitive approach to fare evasion is now under scrutiny, as it undergoes a complete rethink of how its quasi-public security team operates. A largely new slate of MTS board members is pushing for reform after years of public complaints about the agency’s aggressive ticketing.

Last week, MTS board members approved a pilot fare evasion diversion program designed to allow suspected fare evaders to avoid court fees and collections referrals that can terrorize low-income San Diegans, and directed officials to establish a plan to eventually create a civil system that allows suspected fare evaders to avoid court altogether.

Staff at the agency are also taking a harder, more holistic look at its enforcement in the wake of a larger, national police reform movement and in anticipation of its security contract ending next year.

Since 2018, there’s been a growing chorus of concern about MTS’s security structure, training and the approach of its officers and security guards. Some current and former MTS board members are now publicly criticizing what they describe as the agency’s hardline approach to enforcement and a previous lack of public scrutiny by the board.

MTS declined our request for an interview but in response to written questions, Rob Schupp, an agency spokesman, said “all options” are on the table as the agency makes changes to its security operation, including the possibility of employing sworn police officers who could make arrests and would be required to receive more substantial training and state certification. Board members have also signaled they might like to incorporate other types of security resources, such as homeless outreach workers or ambassadors who could help riders navigate the system rather than write tickets.

“There’s an opportunity for us to revisit the structure of our safety and security as an agency and provide a safe space for our riders but at the same time, figure out alternatives,” said Imperial Beach Councilwoman Paloma Aguirre, vice chair of MTS’s Public Security Committee.

Much like the San Diego Association of Governments, MTS is overseen by a 15-member board made up of local government officials who are supposed to serve as public watchdogs, balancing the interests of their constituents with those of the region it serves: central San Diego, South Bay and East County. MTS staff have long driven the agency’s agenda and approach with, until recently, scant public questioning from elected officials.

The agency has a unique security force. There are 64 code compliance inspectors employed by MTS who can issue citations for transit system and quality-of-life violations and about 140 private security guards who cannot. None are police officers, meaning they don’t undergo the same requirements to meet certification in California like a member of a local police or sheriff’s department would. Together they form teams that patrol stations, buses and trolleys.

Their enforcement got a boost in 2017, when MTS board members signed off on Guaderrama’s proposal to add more code compliance inspectors and reduce the number of security guards with the intention of increasing the presence of officers who could write tickets.

Former San Diego City Councilman Harry Mathis, who served as MTS board chair from 2006 until 2018, didn’t recall the specifics of the 2017 vote but said MTS made an effort to promote its fare policy and what could happen if one didn’t pay. (Mathis continued to serve on the board after he left the San Diego City Council under a board policy allowing the arrangement that’s since been discontinued.)

“We tried to publicize it so the public understands what the rules are, and the smart ones avoid them and the people who had no intention of complying with them do not,” Mathis said.

But San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez, who succeeded Mathis as MTS chair, and former City Councilman David Alvarez, remembered those conversations differently. They said the discussion before the vote was more focused on contractual changes and projected budget savings than on the prospect of a dramatic ramp-up in ticketing. The two were the only board members to ask questions about the proposal at the time.

“We weren’t talking about contracting and security in terms of giving people more tickets,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said he was told shortly after his appointment to the board in 2012 that MTS leaders preferred board members ask their questions about policy during personal briefings with staff rather than publicly.

Mathis said he got those briefings himself and thought they’d been useful so that he and others could clarify points on the agenda ahead of time. But at the same time, he said, there was nothing preventing any board member from asking any questions of staff in open session.

Gómez also said she noted that the board then asked few questions during most meetings. She said she now wishes other board members had probed for more specifics following her own questions about potential overtime costs and wages for MTS code officers during the 2017 vote.

“I was really surprised how little engagement the board members had in the discussion, honestly,” Gómez said.

Alvarez agreed.

“That doesn’t make for good public policy, for transparency, and it leads to sometimes issues like (increased ticketing) perhaps not to be able to get addressed,” Alvarez said.

Gómez said that dynamic, along with her belief that MTS should better serve its riders, inspired her to take over as chair when Mathis retired.

By 2018, there had been concerns about MTS’s security policies and enforcement efforts for years.

That same year, City Councilman Chris Ward sounded the alarm. He wrote a letter to Gómez to urge MTS to consider how fare evasion tickets were affecting homeless San Diegans and to consider a different approach.

But Gómez said she realized when she became chair that reform wouldn’t be possible without more Democrats on the MTS board.

She got her wish in 2019.

New board members Ward, City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery and County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher expressed their concerns about MTS’s enforcement approach at their first board meeting after public comments criticizing MTS officers’ interactions with riders.

“I think we’re all in agreement that we want the folks who use our transit system to feel safe,” said Fletcher, now chair of the MTS board. “It is concerning when folks come before us and say that they don’t feel safe from the people that are supposed to keep them safe.”

Montgomery, who now chairs MTS’s Public Security Committee, struck a similar tone.

“There is clearly a problem and it needs to be addressed,” Montgomery said at the time.

Gómez said the board should start reviewing MTS policies before the agency even begins looking at new security contracts. The current one with Allied Universal began in 2015 and was extended through July 2021.

Reform and reviews haven’t come swiftly.

By July 2019, Ward was venting openly. He said was frustrated when MTS officials proposed an amendment to the agency’s security agreement to increase wages for contractors to try to address challenges hiring and retaining security guards. He urged the board to more swiftly evaluate whether contract security guards, some of whom are armed, were appropriate following reports of “aggressive and intimidating behavior with MTS riders.”

“The time really to act is now,” Ward said.

Two months later, Montgomery took over as chair of MTS’s Public Security Committee. She immediately requested more details on MTS’s fare evasion policy, security guard training and urged MTS staff to take further steps to develop a homeless outreach program.

For months, she sought additional data on the outcomes of the agency’s fare evasion enforcement and urged officials to explore administrative processes and decriminalization efforts that other transit systems have pursued to lessen the burden of those tickets.

Last week, Montgomery successfully urged fellow board members to direct MTS officials to come up with a plan to establish a civil process to address tickets along with a bolstered version of the fare evasion pilot staffers had already proposed.

After that vote, MTS officials announced a series of additional efforts that are underway.

CEO Sharon Cooney, who recently took the helm following the unexpected death of former MTS chief Paul Jablonski, said the agency will soon seek outside reviews of its overarching security practices and its use of force policy. MTS officers are also expected to start new training next month that includes de-escalation and diversity.

In a symbolic move, Cooney also announced that MTS will change its police chief’s title to better reflect Guaderrama’s responsibilities.

“That title was given to his predecessor probably 10 to 12 years ago,” Cooney said. “That does not adequately express what the department does. It’s more about making sure passengers feel safe.”

Montgomery said she will soon be pushing for other reforms.

In an email to VOSD, Montgomery wrote that she and other board members have discussed incorporating a range of public safety services, including social workers and public health workers who could aid riders. Montgomery said she’d also like to decriminalize other nonviolent MTS offenses such as playing loud music or smoking near or on the trolley.

Last year, MTS officers wrote more than 3,000 tickets for smoking violations alone.

“Of course, we want to encourage courteous decorum and do not condone inconsiderate behavior. However, our ridership is mostly people of color and lower-income residents, which are at risk of being profiled,” Montgomery wrote. “Until there is more cultural competency and understanding, this will be a challenge for us at the board, staff, and even our ridership. It is all interconnected.”

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

Jesse Marx

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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