CHICAGO — The CTA has added dozens more security guards to the system in recent months, according to the agency — but riders and even some of the guards question if the strategy is making public transportation safer.
Seventy unarmed guards have been added to the ranks since early March, when city leaders announced they would double unarmed security guards from 150 to 300, CTA officials said this week. The changes came after numerous riders said there’s been an uptick in unruly behavior — including people smoking and urinating — and issues with crime on the CTA during the pandemic.
And last week, Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García wrote to CTA officials, calling for greater investments to fight crime on transit. The letter said the CTA has seen a 17 percent increase in violent crime over the past year.
But some riders said they haven’t noticed more guards — or even if they have, they’re not sure it’s helping commuters and employees feel safer.
Guards stationed at a Blue Line stop last week said the size of their patrol groups has not changed since the city’s announcement, and they feel defenseless.
“We’re unsafe on the trains because we’re just kid guards,” said one guard who asked that their name not be used. “They just gave us a flashlight. What are we gonna do with a flashlight? … We’ve been spit on, attacked, all types of stuff.”
There are 200-220 unarmed guards on the CTA each day, with the goal of training and onboarding the rest “as quickly as possible,” CTA officials said in a statement. Unarmed guards are active seven days a week instead of five, and they are “an added layer of trained eyes/ears out on the system for reporting incidents to police,” officials said.
“The overwhelming majority of rides on CTA are without incident and safe,” CTA officials said in a statement Monday. “That said, one crime is one too many, and the CTA recognizes that a recent uptick in crime across the city — including on and near the CTA — requires a stepped-up approach.”
‘I Don’t Know If It Really Makes Me Feel Safer’
The CTA has contracted with four private security firms to address rider concerns about behavior in the past year.
The CTA inked a $3 million “emergency contract” with Monterrey Security in June to promote rules and address rider behavior. And the Chicago Transit Board passed an ordinance in March to pay Monterrey and Inter-Con Security Services $71 million over three years for unarmed guard services.
Security firms Garda and Digby’s also operate in the transit system, according to the CTA. Inter-Con, Digby’s and Garda did not respond to requests for comment.
An Inter-Con job posting for unarmed guards on CTA rail stations shows the job pays $23.33 per hour, requires a high school diploma and 20 hours of training. Officers are equipped with handcuffs, a two-way radio and a flashlight, according to the listing.
CTA officials said more than half of the new 70 guards are employed by Monterrey, a politically connected company that has won large no-bid contracts and often hired top-ranking Chicago officers for post-retirement jobs, according to the Sun-Times. Company leaders said in a statement their guards learn de-escalation techniques and “transit-specific training” from the CTA.
“All current officers have completed this training and it remains ongoing,” Monterrey officials said. “Monterrey coordinates with CTA leadership on how best to deploy those additional officers.”
But some CTA guards, who cannot arrest people for violating CTA rules, said they’re limited in what they can do. A Monterrey guard said police officers have recently joined them for routine patrols in 10-minute intervals at connecting stations like the Jackson Blue Line stop, “where the white folks be traveling at the most.”
“You got the police crawling around every 10 minutes, walking around and leaving. That ain’t doing anything,” the guard said. “If you got a CTA detail here, they should have the police sit in one spot, too. Because they run from the police. They don’t run from us.”
Another unarmed guard at Jackson said they still feel outmatched when dealing with hostile commuters.
“They call us the ‘toy cops,’” the unarmed guard said. “The money is good, but I’m going to quit, too. If I have nothing to protect me, I can’t stay on the job.”
Kayla Simpson, a daily Blue Line commuter, said she has “seen zero” added security. Simpson works at a Portillo’s Downtown and usually closes up shop, taking the train home to the Northwest Side after midnight.
“Sometimes they have security, but it’s not like every day. I’ll see security in the mornings when I’m going to work, but not when I’m going home,” Simpson said. “At night, there’s only the people that are down here in the booth.”
Blue Line riders Ryka Ohana and Gabrielle Peterson said they had an uncomfortable interaction with another rider who approached them while connecting trains at Jackson last week.
“If I would be able to identify [security], I would feel safer,” said Peterson, who also takes the train daily. “Because there have been enough instances where I feel freaked out on the train.”
Theo Boakye, who takes the Blue Line every day for school and work, said he’s noticed “a lot of police” on the platform at Clark and Lake, Washington and “pretty much any of the stops that have connecting trains to The Loop.”
But Boakye said he’s not sure if the physical deterrent has affected safety on his commute.
“I don’t know if it really makes me feel safer. For me, it’s kind of the same,” Boakye said. “The idea is good, to have people getting on there to keep it safe. I don’t see much of a change, if there is a change, in safety.”
Transit activists have suggested the CTA try to partner with more social workers, adopting a transit ambassadors system similar San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system. The pilot program deploys uniformed, unarmed civilians with training in conflict resolution to trains to address issues of mental health, homelessness and substance abuse, proactively defusing situations before they potentially turn violent.
Julie Dworkin, of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the group worries an increase in disciplinary forces like guards and policemen could lead to enforcement of rules that “disproportionately impact” unhoused people on the trains, including policies prohibiting sleeping and bags blocking seats.
Neither CTA nor city officials have been in contact with the coalition about security, Dworkin said. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to questions and deferred comment to the CTA.
“Any coordination around this effort is not going to work without the resources needed to solve this problem,” Dworkin said. “Resources could have gone to create more supportive housing.”
Blue Line rider John Fitzgerald said he hasn’t seen unarmed officers on his commute.
“I think the only thing worse than unaccountable law enforcement that are public servants is unaccountable law enforcement that aren’t public servants,” Fitzgerald said. “If you’re going to be a mayor, or you’re going to be an alderman, you have to live in the city, and you should have to ride CTA and see.”
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