CTA union leader demands return of agency’s own police unit to combat crime surge
CHICAGO - A CTA union president demanded Wednesday that the transit agency bring back conductors and re-establish its own police unit to stop a surge in violent crime and unruly behavior that’s depressing ridership and putting CTA employees at risk.
Hours before city and transit officials announced their latest in a series of crackdowns on CTA crime, Eric Dixon, president of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 308, said he would "take what he could get," including more officers and unarmed security guards. But those alone — what he called "smoke and mirrors" — would not be enough.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown and CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. announced the latest measures at the Chicago/State Red Line stop, and they do indeed include more unarmed security guards.
CPD also will be "strategically adjusting resources from within the Bureau of Counterterrorism to better address shifts in crime patterns" on public transit, according to a news release. Those officers will be divided into teams focusing on gangs and drug crimes, and also patrol the rail lines.
"The word is visibility. What we need to do is make sure that, on every platform across our system, you, the commuters, see the visibility of sworn police officers as well as these unarmed security guards," Lightfoot said.
"And what I will also say to the commuters, if you see something on a train or on a bus that you know is unacceptable, please do not hesitate to call 911 or 311 to report it. We all have to be working together to make sure that our system is safe."
Brown said the focus on gang and narcotics activities was due to complaints from "CTA customers that they see drug dealing" and "conflicts associated with gangs."
He added, before anyone asked: "As much as we need to send to the CTA to make it safe is the amount of resources we’ll send."
With fewer riders on the CTA for an "extended period of time" during the pandemic, Carter acknowledged "some people" bent on wrongdoing have felt "a little bit more emboldened to engage in unacceptable behavior" on buses, trains and platforms.
"That is something we will not accept," Carter said, noting that the two new contracts approved by the CTA board would "more than double the resources" devoted to unarmed private security officers.
Speaking directly to CTA riders, Carter said, "I want you to know that we are aware of how some of your riding experiences have changed and that we are committed to making it better."
Carter also noted the need to find help for people who seek shelter on the CTA because they are homeless. To do so, CTA officials may expand partnerships with social service organizations.
"I have described the homeless problem as one of the most complex and challenging problems I’ve had to face in my career," Carter said.
"I think that the money that we’re spending at CTA for security services is money well spent, both in terms of the increased visibility that it will provide for our customers and also for the ability … to interact with the homeless population and others to provide assistance."
Dixon argued CTA crime would remain "out of control" until conductors return to be the "eyes and ears," at least on subway trains, which would mean the Red and Blue lines, which also are the only CTA lines operating around the clock. Dixon also wants the CTA to re-establish the in-house police unit disbanded more than 40 years ago.
"It makes no sense to me. Boston, New York, D.C., Atlanta, Toronto — all these cities have their own transit policing and we can’t have ours back here. When Mayor [Jane] Byrne dissolved that program, crime wasn’t as bad then as it is now," Dixon said.
"I’ve been around for 35 years. You had guys undercover in the subways. As a conductor, I would see them get on the trains. If something happened, I’d say, ‘In the fourth car, we’ve got a situation.’ They would go to that car. They’d stop things from happening."
Dixon dismissed the CTA’s decision to add more unarmed security guards, calling it window dressing.
"A lot of these are young kids walking around with backpacks on. They’re on their cell phones. They’re not there deterring any crime from happening," Dixon said.
"You need somebody with authority, so that when somebody sees them, they’re gonna stop doing what they’re gonna do. Right now, these kids walk right past them and do whatever they’re gonna do. That does nothing but put a Band-Aid on it."
Dixon, who invited to Wednesday’s press conference but did not attend, made a similar argument about CPD’s Mass Transit Unit. He said it lacks manpower and is dominated by moonlighting officers "working on their days off."
"It was like 100 officers. We’ve got three shifts: a.m., p.m. and midnights. That’s 33 officers-per-shift for bus and rail? That’s not enough. It’s a joke," Dixon said.
Hours after yet another CTA shooting — this one Tuesday night on the Red Line at 63rd Street and the Dan Ryan — Dixon said: "Who wants to get on a train or bus these days if they don’t know if they’re gonna be safe or not?"
In a text message to the Sun-Times, Keith Hill, president of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 241, which represents bus drivers, agreed with Dixon that the answer to the CTA crime surge is "the mass transit police I’ve been pushing for about four years now."
It’s not the first time Lightfoot has vowed to rein in a CTA crime wave that discouraged people from using mass transit.
In January 2020, two months before the stay-at-home shutdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic sent ridership into a tailspin, the mayor called a three-year surge in CTA crime "totally, fundamentally unacceptable" and vowed to get a handle on it with increased patrols and even more surveillance cameras.
At the time, the CTA was struggling to control a 24% spike in crime that triggered 458 criminal incidents on its buses and trains during the one-month period between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2019.
Interim Chicago Police Supt. Charlie Beck first asked SWAT team officers he called the "best and the brightest" at CPD to start riding CTA trains. Then, he launched a more extensive crackdown on mass transit violence.
His broader plan bolstered CPD’s Mass Transit Unit by 50 officers, assigned four detectives exclusively to solving CTA crimes and built a strategic deployment center specifically for mass transit.
The 200-officer Mass Transit Unit grew to 250, freeing SWAT officers to return to their normal duties. They were bolstered by 50 moonlighting officers bankrolled by the CTA.
Beck also asked each of the city’s 22 police districts to do "platform security missions" several times per shift at CTA stations in those districts.
That freed officers assigned to the Mass Transit Unit to ride the trains, dramatically increasing both the perception and reality of safety for CTA riders.
"We’re gonna hold the districts — the normal geographic commands — primarily responsible for that platform presence because I want as many of the 250 cops that will be assigned to CTA to be riding the trains as possible," Beck said then.
The technology extended to the officers themselves, who were asked to start wearing tracking devices.
"Deep into CTA, oftentimes, their [police radios] don’t work. We want to make sure we know where they are so we can keep them safe," Beck said then.
"It’s not only how many you have. It’s how you use them. And we want to make sure we’re using them effectively in the right places at the right times."
The new Strategic Decision Support Center for mass transit opened in the Central Police District. It was bankrolled by a donation from billionaire Ken Griffin, Illinois’ richest man. The center has access to more than 32,000 surveillance cameras on CTA buses, trains and platforms.
"Having a crime analyst there will allow us to not only respond to crime, but make sure that we can put people where we think crime is gonna occur," Beck said then.