At least 9 Metra police to be freed up to work in the field

(CHICAGO) Metra hopes to free at least nine of its police officers to work in the field and to avoid hundreds of police hours now devoted to petty offenses under two police efficiency measures approved Wednesday, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.

The initiatives follow a scathing 2013 audit that blasted the Metra Police Department for excessive overtime and for being more concerned about protecting property than passengers.

Under one measure that would address some of those concerns, 10 Cook County offenses that Metra police often currently charge as misdemeanors instead would result in administrative tickets, with fines as penalties.

That includes crimes as minor as stiffing Metra out of a one-way fare certain low-level cases of vandalism, marijuana possession and trespassing.

Cases that once took 1½ to four hours of police time to charge and book could instead be addressed with tickets, “a process that takes 20 minutes or less,’’ said Metra Police Chief Joseph M. Perez, who was appointed in May 2014 to modernize the department.

Offenders could pay the tickets or appear before a Cook County administrative hearing officer instead of a judge.

Currently, Perez said, Metra police must photograph, fingerprint and process offenders for misdemeanor offenses; go through an additional intake process at Cook County Jail if suspects cannot make bail; and appear in court every time a case is called.

Under the new agreement with Cook County, Metra police would have to appear only if needed at an administrative hearing.

The new effort should spare Metra police up to 540 hours a year in court — including 300 to 400 overtime hours. Metra and Cook County would get a cut of all administrative fines.

Under a second measure, Metra board members agreed Wednesday to pay Cook County at least $847,000 a year to handle 911 calls that now are processed by a 24/7 Metra police dispatch center.

Nine Metra police officers now handle any such calls about incidents on Metra property, costing Metra up to $1.3 million in salaries and benefits a year, Perez said.

After the Cook County Sheriff’s Office takes over that dispatch responsibility, those nine Metra officers can be returned to the field, and in many cases to Metra train cars, as uniformed or undercover officers, Perez said.

“Between the two initiatives,” Perez said, “we have, in effect, a 10 percent increase in police staffing without adding to our personnel costs because officers are not going to court and not doing dispatch center work.’’

Metra’s roughly 100 officers are responsible for protecting 11 rail lines and 241 stations.

Several board members praised the new effort. CEO Don Orseno strongly endorsed them, saying, “These two agreements are strong examples of ways in which local government agencies can work together to find efficiencies and maximize resources.”

— Chicago Sun-Times