Transit officers check for trolley tickets at the La Mesa station in 2016. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

A major statewide reform last year championed by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber changed the legal standards guiding police use of deadly force. Public agencies across California are now required to rewrite policies and instruct their officers that it is only reasonable to take a life in defense against an imminent physical threat.

But whether the new definition of deadly force as laid out in Assembly Bill 392 applies to San Diego’s public transit agency is still an open question — one of several issues that the new leadership at the Metropolitan Transit System wants to unpack in the coming months, partly in response to the national civil unrest over policing.

Joe Kocurek, a spokesman for Weber, said the landmark law was intended to apply to all California police officers, including those working for local transit agencies.

Yet MTS staffers, including the police chief, have said they’re not governed by the new law because the agency’s code compliance inspectors are not armed with deadly weapons and the private security guards who help patrol buses and trolleys are technically employed by an outside company. MTS does not employ trained police officers who receive more substantial training and a certification.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who chairs the MTS Board of Directors, however, said all security officers working for MTS should adhere to the new law anyway.

“All MTS employees and contractors will absolutely follow the use of force guidance in AB 392,” Fletcher told Voice of San Diego in a statement.

The differing responses stem from both the law’s focus on deadly force and MTS’s quasi-public security corps.

The agency employs dozens of code compliance inspectors who carry pepper spray and handcuffs and issue tickets. While on patrol, those inspectors are often assisted by private security guards employed by Allied Universal, a contractor.

Per MTS’s latest contract with Allied Universal, more than half of its 158 security guards can carry a firearm. The total number of security guards who work with MTS is now closer to 140, according to a recent presentation by staff.

By using Allied Universal, MTS has boosted its security teams while keeping costs down. The company’s security guards can start at just above minimum wage, but agency leaders have also noted in recent years that the turnover is high.

The company’s current contract with MTS expires in July 2021, giving the agency and the elected officials from around the region who oversee it an opportunity for serious review.

At a committee meeting in December, MTS Police Chief Manny Guaderrama said the agency is not governed by AB 392 because its inspectors and security guards aren’t sworn officers, meaning they don’t go through the same certification process that California requires of beat cops.

“Their training is limited,” Guaderrama said, “because they’re not doing the same function as a police officer.”

He acknowledged that many of the security guards are armed with a deadly weapon, but said, “I can only think of one time in which a firearm was actually drawn in the last five years.”

There are separate policies for MTS’s code compliance inspectors and Allied Universal’s security guards.

MTS declined an interview request but in response to written questions, Rob Schupp, an MTS spokesman, said the new state law refers specifically to sworn police officers.

“Allied Universal employees adhere to the principles of AB 392,” Schupp wrote.

The company declined to comment.

Guaderrama has said he’s responsible for evaluating the code compliance inspectors who work directly for the agency and he has the ability to remove any Allied Universal security guards who don’t meet MTS’s standards.

“Any time we have an issue with a contract security officer, first of all we bring it to (Allied Universal’s) attention if they don’t already know it and they investigate it,” Guaderrama said at a board meeting last July. “But any time that we don’t want a contracted officer working on our contract, then we let them know and they are immediately removed.”

Starting next month, both the code compliance inspectors and security guards are expected to start new training that includes de-escalation and an emphasis on cultural diversity. MTS has released some details about what its staff would like to see in a new contract with Allied Universal, or any private security firm, and that includes an onsite training coordinator.

MTS also announced last week that it plans to hire consultants to separately analyze and rewrite its use of force policy and evaluate the agency’s practices and enforcement model, including the need for sworn police officers.

It’s not immediately clear, even to MTS board members, what that means. When pressed for more details, Schupp said “all options” are on the table.

The creation of a more professionalized police force within MTS may sound counter to the wider goals of the police reform movement, which has been calling for fewer investments in law enforcement, not more, but elected officials were not necessarily opposed. Some members of MTS’s board stressed in interviews over the last week that they need more information and said they’d also like the agency to look into “ambassadors” who’d help riders buy tickets and get where they need to go as a less punitive approach to enforcement.

An officer is considered sworn once he or she has received a clearance from the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST. Officers with this certification are without a doubt beholden to AB 392.

San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who chairs MTS’s Public Security Committee, has signaled early, though cautious, interest in adding sworn officers to the agency’s roster.

“Having more POST-certified officers would allow for more accountability,” she wrote in a statement to VOSD. “However, even throughout our nation, there are police departments and security services with POST-certified officers that still exhibit characteristics of implicit, and sometimes explicit, bias with or without the certification. De-escalation must be a priority.”

Jesse Marx

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

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...

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