The few, the proud, the . . . Utah Transit Authority public safety officers.
OK, so maybe joining UTA's new security force doesn't carry the same prestige as enlisting in the fabled Marines.But UTA's latest hires are ready to be all they can be to bus passengers throughout the agency's six-county service area.
That means helping them catch the right bus, read UTA route maps, locate bus stops, pay the correct fare and, in general, follow the rules and etiquette of responsible bus riding.
Like their counterparts in the military, UTA's transit officers might have to get physical if any nation, er, passenger becomes unruly or breaks the law. Thanks in part to a law passed recently by the state Legislature, UTA's bus cops will have the authority to remove and detain hostile or uncooperative passengers.
Beginning today, unarmed transit officers dressed in sharp khaki uniforms, shiny black shoes and black baseball caps will appear at bus stops, on buses and in UTA security vehicles from Ogden to Provo.
Unlike Marines, UTA's transit officers aren't parachuting into a crisis situation. Agency officials say their 550 buses have not been besieged by crime. UTA entered a $406,800 annual contract with the Wackenhut Corp. to prepare for the future when its transit network will include a 15-mile light-rail mass transit system.
"This is not being brought about because we have any security problems," UTA general manager John Inglish said Thursday during the public unveiling of the Transit Public Safety Officers group near a State Street bus stop.
UTA board member Ron Whitehead said the agency is being proactive rather than reactive.
"The whole thing is a deterrent to crime," said Coralie Alder, UTA community relations specialist. "We have a relatively safe system now. We're just trying to keep ahead of the situation."
Twelve officers, earning an average of $10 per hour, are now employed by Wackenhut as UTA transit cops. Three more will be hired soon. At least four and as many as seven officers will be in the field at any given time between 8 a.m. and midnight, six days a week.
"I think it'll take some time for people to get used to us, seeing us around," said Stacy Martinez, the only woman among the first 12 officers. "We're hoping it will be a good experience for everybody we come in contact with."
UTA Security Administrator Mike Dorman said the officers will not carry weapons for now but could in the future, if necessary.
Joe Dongvillo, one of two field supervisors, said he and three other transit officers are already certified as peace officers who can carry weapons.
"We've trained our officers in crisis management and verbal-communication skills," said Dongvillo, 43, of Riverton. "They will be able to handle 98 percent of the situations they encounter" without having to use physical force.
The officers, however, will be able to make arrests.
Dongvillo said his troops will be on the lookout for loud and rowdy teens, passengers or bus-stop loiterers who may be intoxicated, patrons disturbing or arguing with other passengers and riders who hassle bus drivers.
The officers will stand at bus stops and ride buses, but most often will cruise bus routes in their patrol cars, responding to dispatch requests or following certain buses to monitor potential problems.
"Their instructions are to be flexible and friendly and treat people courteously and do everything they can to solve problems in an amicable fashion," said Bill Essex, projects manager for Wackenhut, which provides a similar service for transit agencies in seven other U.S. cities, including Denver and Miami.
Dorman said UTA officers won't replace local law enforcement agencies, but will work with them to keep transit peace.