Sacramento's light-rail security conundrum

Riding light-rail with police Lt. Norm Leong can be a lonely experience.

Outfitted in his dress blues and greeting every passenger who boards an afternoon train jostling its way from the Del Paso Boulevard station to a stop near RT’s security command center, Leong’s niceties are met with uncomfortable and sometimes stern gazes.

Everyone tightens up with a cop in their midst, even one as upbeat as Leong.

SN&R conducted this light-rail ride-along with the commander of RT Police Services back in September, sandwiched between two disparate security events, to explore recurring safety concerns aboard the serpentine transit system.

Six months earlier, uniformed officers fatally shot a 51-year-old man on board a light-rail train—the first time something like that has happened, well, ever. The man reportedly pleaded with officers to shoot him and lunged at them with a knife. Officers futilely tried their Tasers before going to their guns.

Six months after the ride-along, a Facebook firestorm erupted over the April 26 arrest of two black teens at a downtown light-rail station. Photos depicting the rough handling of the youths, shared thousands of times on social media, painted an upsetting picture, especially once people learned the boys were targeted following an inaccurate call to authorities.

Two very different scenarios that illustrate the intersecting and, sometimes, conflicting demands of transit police: You’re not happy to see them unless you need them.

This is essentially a story about perception versus reality, in that light-rail has actually gotten safer when it comes to the crimes people care about, like robbery and theft, but ridership is down and fare-evasion remains problematic.

“That’s our ultimate challenge—making riders feel safe on the system,” Leong says.

In this respect, the lieutenant isn’t just Sacramento’s top transit cop; he’s an RT booster out to combat the system’s lingering image problem.

For years RT has tried to shake an unflattering reputation that it’s a grungy transportation option for people who can’t afford alternatives, plagued by troublemakers who skirt the fare and raise a ruckus, and overseen by security guards that doesn’t really do much.

RT Police Services is a hodgepodge of bodies from various sectors: four sergeants and 22 peace officers assigned from the city police and county’s sheriff’s departments (though one of those positions is generally vacant so Leong can afford overtime and special deployments), 13 transit fare inspectors who belong to RT, and 90-some private security guards from G4S Secure Solutions.

Meanwhile, those yellow-and-black-shirted guards who make up the bulk of Leong’s force can’t issue citations because they don’t belong to RT’s union. The union’s argument is that letting private guards creep into their duties is the first step to privatizing the workforce and sacrificing accountability.

The Center for Investigative Reporting’s recent examination of private security firms makes that last one a legitimate concern.

During the September ride-along, Leong himself pondered a shift in private security contracts. He lamented that we hadn’t seen the guard assigned to this train at any time during our 45-minute journey. He said the guard should be getting off at each stop to board a new car and increase his visibility.

He also doesn’t like it when he sees them standing around, not interacting with riders or ignoring the trash in their station.

Reached by phone this month, Leong said his guards’ performance had improved considerably since he began spot-checking them using light-rail’s surveillance system. When I rode the system solo on May 1, I witnessed two guards board the Gold Line train to downtown at the Archives Plaza stop, talk amongst themselves, then get off and board another car at the Sacramento Valley station stop.

A work in progress, Leong acknowledges.

In 17 months, analysts expect a new downtown Sacramento Kings arena will bump ridership by an anticipated 7 percent. (RT spokeswoman Alane Masui says the figure will probably be higher.)

At a stop, Leong makes chitchat with a man and his young daughter. The doors whir open. An older black man presents a laminated transit pass to Leong without prompting. The lieutenant smiles and nods as the man finds a seat. One customer down, thousands more to go.

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an SN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.


Stay Updated

For the latest local news, arts and entertainment, sign up for our newsletter.
We'll tell you the story behind the story.