DENVER (CBS4)– While acute problems with crime, drug use and homelessness at Denver’s Union Station were exposed in media reports last week, prompting immediate action from both RTD and Denver’s mayor, the issues were well- known months, if not years earlier, to RTD and the city. The issues were the subject of a 19-page study by the American Public Transport Association that was requested by RTD and presented to the RTD board in June.
The analysis by outside transit and law enforcement experts of Union Station and RTD’s overall security issues found or recommended:
- 1/3 of respondents in an RTD customer safety and security survey said “they had experienced a situation where they felt their personal safety/security was at risk when using RTD services. The most common experiences center around disruptive customers, activities or crowds at Denver Union Station.”
- “Disruptive behavior from customers, primarily due to substance overuse or mental health issues, is a top safety concern” stated the summary.
- RTD transit police officers “are prohibited by Denver officials from taking enforcement action (arrests, citations, etc.)… currently, Denver Police must be dispatched to an incident location to take whatever action they deem appropriate even when RTD transit police are on scene.”
- “RTD is encountering public health and security challenges at the facility,” states the report.
The peer review was requested by RTD general manager and CEO Debra Johnson. But CBS4 found that many of the recommendations have not been implemented and other recent facility rules promulgated by RTD in January of 2021, like a prohibition against lying or sitting on the floor at Union Station and limiting the number of people in bathrooms are not being enforced and are being ignored.
Pauletta Tonilas, RTD’s Assistant General Manager of Communications, told CBS4, “Welcome to the challenges we have. There are some bolder solutions that are going to have to happen.”
When CBS4 visited Union Station and its underground bus terminal before dawn last week, dozens of apparently homeless men and women were sleeping on the floors. Others openly smoked what appeared to be illegal drugs. A private security guard working at the transit hub told CBS4 there wasn’t much guards could do.
“Our policy is we educate and notify law enforcement,” he said. “There are significant risks to the public right now.”
Those concerns were mirrored in the APTA report which recommended resolving “jurisdictional issues that prohibit RTD transit police officers from taking direct law enforcement action within the City and County of Denver.”
RTD spends about $30 million each year on security employing 20 transit police officers and 305 contracted armed security officers.
But the report noted that the private security guards only get about three weeks of general training before being put on the front lines and that turnover rates for the private security guards were as high as 84% in January 2021. The national average turnover rate for contract security personnel is 40%.
After media reports last week, RTD announced it would be utilizing TSA agents to help patrol Union Station along with the Guardian Angels volunteer group. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said he was directing staff members to immediately meet with RTD management and the transit union.
“Illegal drug use, public urination and unsafe loitering must not be allowed to continue,” said Hancock.
But Tonilas acknowledged the problems had been evident for a long time, “We do what we can.”
She said in recent months, RTD had hired eight new full-time transit police officers, three mental health clinicians and a homeless outreach coordinator.
But she acknowledged many of the recommendations contained in the report that was obtained by CBS4 have not been implemented due to affordability and other constraints.
“This will continue to evolve”, she said.
The APTA report said interviews with RTD-related personnel showed, “Denver Union Station transit security officers can only stand around and watch while waiting for RTD transit police to respond, which takes 30 to 45 minutes, and the security officers have no authority to escort anyone off the property or bus. If you are limiting security officers’ ability to react, then put more actual transit police officers out on the road patrolling, not in garages. Give the security officers the authority they need to secure areas, rather than waiting for a response from another agency.”
The president of the union representing RTD workers called Union Station a “hellhole” and said it was unsafe for RTD workers to spend time in Union Station.