Calgary Transit Takes a New Direction

Dec 15, 2013

Arriving at Calgary’s City Hall C-Train platform, it is bustling as usual as I wait for Vikram Kulkarni, a Peace Officer with the Public Safety and Enforcement Section of Calgary Transit.

Peace Officer Kulkarni emerges in uniform to greet me before leading me to the offices of Calgary Transit’s Peace Officers. The department currently maintains over 100 full-time employees, including 89 full-time Calgary Transit Peace Officers. Kulkarni explains that throughout the past few years the ­Public Safety and Enforcement Section has undergone an overwhelming transformation in leadership and direction.

Before long, the Superintendent of ­Public Safety and Enforcement at Calgary Transit, Brian Whitelaw, joins us in a conference room. A veteran in the field of law enforcement, Whitelaw’s leadership is arguably the major catalyst behind rebuilding the once maligned organization. He left his position as an inspector with the ­Calgary Police Service in 2008 and came to Calgary Transit tasked with the responsibility of building up the Calgary Transit Peace Officer program. While safety and security measures were well underway in 2007, the homicide of a women stalked from a Transit Station was the catalyst that resulted in an intensive review of safety and security processes and methods across the system. The topic dominated the news for a long time and the crime struck an exceptionally strong chord throughout the city’s general populace. It served to intensify Calgary Transit’s commitment to ­systematic organizational transformation and a revision of safety and security.

Whitelaw remains candid about the weaknesses in organizational culture that were present – he recalls some of the critical issues that needed to be addressed. “It was important to ask ourselves whether we had sufficient resources and whether our tactics and strategies could prevent violent crime and disorder,” he acknowledges. “This was a flashpoint for Calgary Transit and very damaging to our reputation. This was the environment that I came into in 2008.”

The challenges ahead seemed daunting, however, Whitelaw and his team set about the task of rebuilding the badly shaken security establishment. “I took an immediate look at how safety and security services were delivered,” explains Whitelaw. “My responsibility was to say first of all we don’t have enough people to adequately ensure the safety needs of our customers. In addition, there needs to be an entire program developed around the three principles of prevention, problem solving and proactive activity. I saw that none of that was in place.”

Many experts believe that it takes at least five years to transform an organization’s culture, and the Public Safety and Enforcement Section of Calgary Transit appears to be a perfect example. It has taken approximately that long for the department’s members to completely embrace a more proactive, forward thinking and efficient culture. “Getting the right people is critical, and so is building our programs around the best practices in our industry and maximizing the use of our human resources,” emphasizes Whitelaw.

Most importantly, from a criminology perspective, Calgary Transit has increased its number of Peace Officers. From just 44 in 2008, the organization is currently at double that strength. There was reason for celebration when, in May 2011, a culturally diverse group of 16 new recruits commenced new careers at Calgary Transit. One of the largest graduating classes, the new Public Safety and Enforcement Peace Officers marched to bagpipes during their graduation ceremony at Fort Calgary. One of those recruits, Vikram Kulkarni is proud of the professionalism and skill level that he and his colleagues bring to their positions in the security field. Prior knowledge and security experience in the field is an asset, however, preference is given to a post secondary education and previous experience in a paramilitary or security enforcement role.

The authority granted to Calgary Transit Peace Officers in their areas of responsibility has also been increasing. Calgary Police Service has essentially diverted responsibility to Calgary Transit to look after its own day-to-day policing requirements. This has been facilitated through a number of partnerships and agreements. Specifically, Calgary Police Service and Calgary Transit are sig­natories to an MOU (memorandum of understanding), which gets reviewed every three years. Under the agreement, Peace Officers are authorized to carry batons and pepper spray. They have authority to arrest individuals and are also permitted to execute outstanding warrants for bylaw, provincial and criminal code violations.

“We essentially look after about 90 percent of the types of things that occur on the transit system,” explains Whitelaw. “Some nights are extremely busy on the system and our resources are exhausted, but we have the Calgary Police Service to back us up. There is also the advantage of sharing information with the Calgary Police Service. They have dedicated officers in the field collecting essential information about people and situations and they can quickly assess the risk to the community and its transit system.”

Meanwhile, Whitelaw says that his department must continue to plan toward the future. Calgarians made 101,971,700 trips on the transit system in 2012, which is also the year the 8.2 km west leg of Calgary’s Light Rail Transit Line commenced operation. With a substantial section ­elevated above ground, the West LRT project remains the largest infrastructure endeavour ever undertaken by the City of Calgary. A relentlessly expanding public transit system is a reality in a city such as this, yet Whitelaw and his staff of dedicated Peace Officers are confident that they can manage the growth.

Statistics reveal that serious or violent crimes on Calgary Transit are extremely rare and that the new approach to security is working.

The most common “crimes against ­persons” are minor assaults and unarmed robberies. According to Whitelaw, concerns for personal safety while using transit are typically based more on exposure to antisocial behaviors (aggressive panhandling, swearing and causing a disturbance) and signs of physical disorder (graffiti, unclean or poorly lit locations) than on actual crime.

Peace Officer Kulkarni points out that in 2011, the Public Safety and Enforcement Section at Calgary Transit formed an alliance with Calgary Crime Stoppers Association. The primary objective of the partnership is to communicate with the public and to engage Calgarians in combating crime on the public transit system. Calgary Transit also has an active Transit Watch program which is focused on the premise, “If you see something, say something.” ­Citizens are encouraged to anonymously alert Public Safety when they witness damage or vandalism to transit assets and properties, including buses, bus stops, LRT stations and parking lots.

Applying the latest studies in criminology, and using state-of-the-art policing ­tech­niques are at the top of Whitelaw’s agenda. “Our deployment is evolving more to hot-spot policing of trouble areas,” he says. “We know, for example, in terms of urban planning and urban design that we’re going to get more calls concentrated at C-Train stations where there is a nearby retail outlet or major shopping mall. Our goal is to make sure we build a working network of safety and security resources with the owners of retail locations and the mall security.”

As our meeting adjourns and I prepare to leave, Kulkarni reiterates that throughout the department’s extensive transformation the one thing that has remained constant is their commitment to ensure the safety and security of users across the system. That will “always be a high priority,” he affirms.

Jaqueline Chartier is a FrontLine staff writer based in Calgary.
© FrontLine Security 2013