Jose Morales, a transit security officer, logs his inspections. Morales makes sure all passengers are wearing masks to stop the spread of coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The Metropolitan Transit System is on the verge of hiring a new security firm to help patrol bus and trolley stations that has touted a record free of troubling use-of-force incidents. That record, however, is now under scrutiny as a new contract comes up for consideration.

For years, MTS has policed its transit lines looking for fare violations and quality-of-life offenses with the assistance of a team of private security guards who work for Santa Ana-based Allied Universal. After calls for reforms over the last year, MTS officials are promising to take their security force in a new direction by hiring another company more focused on retaining and training its guards and improving interactions with riders.

If the MTS board approves the new contract next month, Pasadena-based Inter-Con Security Systems has vowed to deliver a dedicated 190-member security team, including 113 armed guards and supervisors, as part of a three-year contract. The contract could be extended for another two years at a total cost of up to $66 million.

At a public meeting this month, Inter-Con, which also has contracts with Houston’s transit system, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Marshals Service, made the case for itself with a big claim. The firm said that it’s faced no lawsuits alleging unlawful or unnecessary use of force and that no judgment has ever been issued against the company for unlawful or unnecessary force in the United States.

It is one of the major selling points for switching companies, and officials responded favorably to the claim. But it’s also not clear how thoroughly MTS vetted Inter-Con’s claim, and in response to criticism from the current contractor and questions from VOSD, Inter-Con has qualified a portion of what it initially said.

After an MTS committee recommended moving forward with Inter-Con earlier this month, Allied Universal responded by pointing to six cases it said involve use of force in California, New York and Illinois where Inter-Con was named as a defendant between 2010 and 2018.

VOSD was only able to review some of those filings remotely, at least one of which involved an allegation of physical assault. ­­­Two others involved allegations of battering and unlawful detainment but never went to trial. A fourth case involved harassment but was quickly tossed out by a judge.

Asked to respond, Inter-Con said each of the cases was dismissed and “more importantly, in none of those cases was Inter-Con ever found or held to have used unlawful or unnecessary force.”

Allied Universal had initially protested MTS’s selection of Inter-Con. Although it’s since dropped its formal appeal, a representative for the firm complained in a June 17 letter that MTS’s “lack of rigorous review potentially creates future risks.”

MTS spokesman Rob Schupp said the transit agency has simply asked Inter-Con to “restate its claims about use of force lawsuits” during its ongoing review process.

Meanwhile, Inter-Con acknowledged that its current management team — most of whom started after 2016 — didn’t have full knowledge of legal cases over the company’s nearly 50-year history. Nevertheless, the company argued in a statement that its record is “exemplary when compared to others in the industry.”

Allied Universal and MTS have been named in a series of lawsuits alleging excessive force in recent years. The volume of cases filed against Allied Universal appears to be higher than those filed against Inter-Con.

In the latest example, MTS and Allied Universal agreed to pay a $5.5 million settlement following the 2019 death of 24-year-old Angel Zapata Hernandez. Hernandez died after an MTS officer and an Allied Universal guard held him face down for several minutes near Santa Fe Depot. The Allied Universal guard put his knee on Hernandez’s back while an MTS officer put his knee on the 24-year-old’s neck, and Hernandez eventually stopped breathing.

The incident, which MTS has said spurred significant reforms to its own policies, was eerily similar to the 2020 murder of George Floyd, an act that sparked nationwide protests. District Attorney Summer Stephan decided last summer not to pursue murder or manslaughter charges, suggesting the two officers could not be held legally liable. Both officers no longer work for MTS.

The Union-Tribune also revealed last month that Allied Universal had been sued for a similar death in Sacramento just four months before the incident involving Hernandez, and that just two days before the deadly encounter downtown, MTS and Allied settled another federal lawsuit alleging assault by officers.

The lawsuits against both MTS and Allied Universal reflect the agency’s unique security approach. MTS relies on contract security guards employed by Allied Universal along with its own code compliance officers who write tickets. Some of the security guards are armed, while MTS officers are not.

Over the past few years, there’s been a growing chorus of concerns about MTS’s security structure, training and the way its security teams interact with the public. Agency officials have also raised concerns about frequent turnover among its contract security corps.

Larger cracks in the relationship between Allied Universal and MTS appeared last summer amid Black Lives Matter protests. A group of reform-minded officials criticized the agency’s past leaders and focused much of their attention on the training and certification of its personnel as well as the historically hardline approach to people who ride without paying for a ticket.

In 2017, MTS leaders agreed to double the number of code compliance officers on staff after the agency’s then-police chief argued it could reduce the agency’s roughly 3 percent fare evasion rate on transit lines. That punitive approach has since come under scrutiny.

Last year, a VOSD investigation revealed that, over the course of a single week, MTS code compliance officers wrote nearly 1,500 citations for fare evasion. Most went unpaid and wound up being referred to debt collectors, an outcome that has upended the lives of some low-income riders.

The architect of the agency’s aggressive ticketing policy, a former San Diego police officer, retired in July 2020 amid all the pushback. Earlier this year, MTS received a report from outside experts that came with a slew of recommended changes to the agency’s security operation that the agency and its new director of transit security and passenger safety are working to implement. Before receiving that report, MTS rewrote its use-of-force policy and piloted a fare evasion diversion program.

Allied Universal did not create MTS’s past policies. But the decision to hire a new security firm starting in 2022 is part of the agency’s ongoing attempt to re-evaluate and change MTS’s security structure.

The decision is not final. The MTS board still needs to sign off.

During a presentation on June 11, agency officials said they had completed a review of both firms and scored Allied Universal higher in the first round, but awarded Inter-Con enough points in the second round — after conducting site visits and interviews — to push it over the top.

Inter-Con CEO Henry Hernandez argued that his firm pays more than the current contractor, expects to retain most of the guards now working for contractor Allied Universal and has better technology to track its workforce. He also touted the company’s commitment to training employees on de-escalation techniques and pledged that Inter-Con would provide dedicated staff who don’t bounce between job sites for other entities that hire its security guards.

The result, Hernandez said, would be improved interactions between MTS’s contract security force and riders, including homeless San Diegans who have often been disproportionately impacted by MTS enforcement.

An Allied Universal spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests to comment for this story.

Schupp, the MTS spokesman, told VOSD that all Allied employees who work as MTS guards must be trained to serve that function, but the company could reassign those who had received MTS training to other duties.

It is possible Inter-Con has never paid a judgment resulting from a use-of-force case as the firm claims, but VOSD found at least one case where Inter-Con appeared to have settled rather than go to trial.

In a 2016 lawsuit, Lamar Seymore claimed that Inter-Con security guards working at a San Francisco federal building pushed him and pinned him down as he attempted to put his shoes on following a security screening.

“More specifically, he was thrown to the ground, placed in a wrist hold, and restrained with a knee to his back by defendants,” the lawsuit states.

Seymore’s suit claims the physical contact was unnecessary and that he was left with multiple injuries.

In a later filing, Inter-Con denied each of the allegations made in Seymore’s complaint. A year later, Seymore’s attorney notified the San Francisco Superior Court that a conditional settlement had been reached. The case was later dismissed.

When VOSD inquired about the case, Inter-Con said it could not elaborate on what had occurred.

“This matter predates Inter-Con’s current management and appears to have been dismissed years ago,” the company wrote in an email. “Nonetheless, as a provider of diplomatic security first and foremost, we believe our track record on this topic is best-in-class within the industry and, given how highly we prioritize training on public interaction, will continue to be best-in-class throughout the duration of our service to MTS.”

Most of the cases against Inter-Con that VOSD was able to find represent employment- and labor-related disputes. In 2008, for instance, the firm agreed to pay $4 million to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that employees weren’t paid for briefings and training and weren’t paid interest on deposits made for their required uniforms.

Allied Universal initially protested the decision to change security firms. In a letter dated May 27, Allied Universal’s government specialist, Tad Garabedian, argued that MTS’s process was arbitrary and skewed toward Inter-Con.

He pointed to the fact that, while Inter-Con’s bid came in lower, MTS gave Allied Universal higher marks in the first round for its work plan, staffing and qualifications. But after conducting interviews with both firms, MTS reduced some of those same figures for Allied Universal while increasing the marks for Inter-Con.

Sam Elmer, MTS’s manager of procurement, defended the decision to go with Inter-Con a few days later, arguing, among other things, that the interview shed more light on Inter-Con’s “qualifications and ability to adapt to a changing environment,” including its “experience in highly fluctuating high-touch environments.”

In a separate letter, MTS CEO Sharon Cooney also pointed out that the agency isn’t required to award a contract based on the committee’s scores alone. She also argued that the decision to go with Inter-Con shouldn’t be viewed as a rebuke of Allied Universal’s past work.

“MTS and the local community have undergone significant change over the past several years,” she wrote. “Our board and local advocacy organizations are asking MTS to take a fresh, self-critical look at how we deliver passenger safety and security and how we build trust and respect with the communities we serve. Inter-Con’s proposal gives MTS one more opportunity to innovate and reimagine how we do things at MTS.”

Cooney also said that Inter-Con’s focus on addressing MTS’s concerns about retention and training of its contracted force gave it a leg up as MTS’s evaluation committee reviewed bids.

“Allied did not propose any new, significant changes to address these challenges,” Cooney wrote. “In contrast, Inter-Con demonstrated a commitment to these issues throughout the evaluation period, which the committee determined was worthy of additional points in the final scoring of proposals.”

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 is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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