As it has received scrutiny for incidents involving its privately contracted transit security force, the Utah Transit Authority has maintained that it doesn't want an official in-house transit police agency.
But just a year ago, UTA proposed legislation that would have amended state law to create the transit authority's own force.
The law would have given the transit force full Category 1 police status instead of the "special function" status transit officers currently maintain. Special function officers aren't authorized to make arrests or conduct criminal investigations.
Under the proposed legislation, Utah law would have been amended to "allow UTA to establish a law enforcement agency and employ law enforcement officers."
The amendment received a thumbs-up in May 2000 from Salt Lake County's Law Enforcement Administration and Directors (LEADS) which contains police brass from the U.S. Marshal's Office, U.S. Secret Service, the FBI, U.S. Customs, the Salt Lake City Police Department and the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office, among many others.
At a May 4, 2000, LEADS meeting, law enforcement leaders voted on a motion supporting the UTA force.
Then-public safety commissioner and LEADS chairman Craig Dearden sent a letter dated June 16, 2000, to UTA general manager John Inglish giving the law enforcement conglomerate's opinion.
"It was the general consensus of LEADS members that Utah Transit Authority, TRAX security officers be allowed to carry weapons and have the ability to act as full Category 1 peace officers," reads the letter obtained by the Deseret News. "They also agreed that TRAX officers should investigate their own cases, with outside agencies assisting as needed."
The legislation was drafted by UTA and the transit authority was poised to create its own police force, similar to other major transportation systems.
But UTA backed away from the plan, and it was never formally introduced in the Legislature.
"We're not proposing that legislation now," Inglish said last week. "We think that it's the role of UTA to provide some supplemental support to local (police) agencies."
When the new law was crafted, UTA was on board because many local police agencies wanted the support and resources of an official transit force. But now, Inglish says, "it's unreasonable for us to run a police agency since we are a transit agency."
The change of heart, Inglish said, came after UTA realized the transit force would be too costly, too much hassle and that it wasn't UTA's "liability or responsibility" to provide an official force.
Still, UTA is re-examining its current contract with the Wackenhut Corp. the company hired to provide security officers for UTA but it hasn't decided whether to pull the plug on the private contractor.
"We're not planning to right now," Inglish said. "But we're evaluating it."
UTA and Wackenhut have received scrutiny recently for several incidents involving the transit security force, but Inglish wouldn't say if those incidents played a role in UTA's reassessment of its Wackenhut contract.
"It's normal for a large transit agency that just underwent a major expansion program to regularly re-evaluate things," Inglish said. "(Transit security) is an area up for constant scrutiny and we want to address all these issues, but what our final decision is remains to be seen."
If UTA did separate ties with Wackenhut, it would need to find a new security contractor or create its own transit police force a decision that some officers feel could solve internal problems in the transit security force.
Those internal problems spawned separate investigations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office.
The ATF is investigating Wackenhut after two high-ranking transit security officers used UTA letterhead to purchase an AR-15 assault rifle and the security agency issued high-capacity handgun magazines, which are legal only for actual police agencies, to transit officers. The U.S. Attorney's Office is deciding whether criminal charges will be filed.
Wackenhut, along with UTA, has also been investigated by the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office after two detectives, acting on a tip, discovered the transit security agency had created a makeshift evidence locker used to store guns, drugs, other weapons and alcohol confiscated on buses and TRAX trains.
As a "special function agency" the transit force isn't allowed to maintain an evidence locker, but officers are often left with contraband if local police are too busy to offer assistance.
The transit authority was also criticized by the Salt Lake County Fire Department after a July 5 incident in which a TRAX driver, against commands from a Wackenhut officer, moved a light-rail train too close to a car fire.
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