Metra operates an “antiquated” police department with excessive overtime, irrational staffing plans and officers who were not qualified to use firearms for more than two years, according to a blistering investigative report released Wednesday.
The 114-page report paints an alarming portrait of law enforcement standards on the nation's second-largest commuter rail system as it details myriad concerns about the agency's training, counterterrorism efforts and commitment to passenger safety. It also raises questions about the effectiveness of a 105-member police force that averages less than one arrest per day.
The Chicago-based security firm Hillard Heintze LLC finished the wide-ranging assessment of the police department months ago, but Metra officials refused to release it publicly as they struggled to recover from a patronage scandal that led to the resignation of half the board.
After the Tribune obtained the report and raised questions about it, the agency released the document and hastily scheduled a news conference for Wednesday evening.
Among the report's most troubling findings, investigators determined that the department had not undergone any firearms qualification training in more than two years. The discovery was so serious that Metra officials asked the security firm to immediately stop its overall assessment and instead oversee certification efforts for the agency's police officers.
“Early in the assessment it became very clear that the department was deficient in many areas, including weapons qualification,” the report states.
Under Illinois law, police officers must go through a recertification process each year. It's unclear if there are penalties for failing to meet the regulations. Metra officials said they did not know if any officer discharged a weapon during the noncompliant years.
After learning about the report's findings from the Tribune, Larry Smith, deputy director of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, said his agency plans to conduct its own review of Metra's police department.
Metra said Wednesday that it has begun to implement the report's 50 recommendations. It listed seven areas, including additional training and upgraded equipment, where it has taken steps so far.
Metra interim Executive Director Don Orseno said the report was intended as a “road map” for the department.
“We wanted to find out, are we doing the right thing?” Orseno said. “We want to make sure we're going in the right direction. That's why we brought in Hillard Heintze.”
The report criticizes Metra's contribution to local homeland security efforts, saying the police department does not coordinate with other law enforcement agencies to ensure the best protection. The rail agency needs to take a more proactive role, the report states, particularly in light of recent terrorist incidents in London and Madrid.
“There is little interaction between Metra and other agencies in the Chicago metropolitan area that address any significant crime control or counterterrorism efforts,” the report states. “The interaction of MPD officers with other law enforcement agencies is usually limited to determining which local or municipal jurisdiction will handle an accident involving a Metra train and a vehicle.”
Metra commissioners approved spending $200,000 on the Hillard Heintze assessment at the urging of then-Deputy Director Alex Wiggins and then-CEO Alex Clifford in October 2012. Longtime board member Jack Schaffer opposed the move, calling it a “boondoggle” and saying he objected to paying the firm for a report that would undoubtedly suggest Metra spend more money, according to minutes from that meeting.
The proposal eventually passed 10-2, with former board member Mike McCoy also opposing it.
Wiggins said the assessment was “needed and warranted.”
“I think the report is solid and begins to outline a path to truly make the department better,” he said.
Wiggins, a former police officer in Seattle, was given administrative responsibility for the department in May, when Metra removed Sharon Austin from the post. Austin was a longtime Metra official and one of the last administrative holdovers from the Phil Pagano era. Pagano, the former executive director, took his life in 2010 as he was about to be fired for stealing money.
Wiggins officially resigned from Metra on Jan. 18, he said Wednesday. He had been on leave since November, after losing out to Orseno as interim executive director.
Clifford was ousted as CEO in June after alleging ongoing patronage practices at the agency.