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Sleazy Riders

Roberto Vasquez Jr
Transit's Most Wanted: Roberto Vasquez Jr. was one of 138 people cited in September for violation of the unposted transit ordinance TD-6.1 section 22(j): "No person shall put his/her foot on any seat provided for passengers of a transit facility."

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Welcome to public transit. Sit back, enjoy the ride, but don't be putting your feet up. Not unless you want to pay $76 and have an altercation with a grumpy old man.

By Michael Learmonth

ROBERTO VASQUEZ JR. will never forget his first ride on Santa Clara County light rail. He had just boarded a southbound train with three friends at 4pm on a Thursday in September, heading downtown for a concert at Plaza de César Chavez. The train was nearly empty. Vasquez and each of his friends plopped onto seats behind one another and settled in for the ride. Vasquez, 20, a student at De Anza College, put his feet up next to him and kicked back to read a copy of Metro.

Then, a middle-aged man in garish tourist garb, wearing a net baseball cap and backpack, approached from the other end of the train. He directed Vasquez to take his foot off the seat next to him.

"He looked like one of those old men who all they do is ride the trolley," remembers Vasquez. "That's why we looked at him, like, whatever."

There were plenty of other seats on the train, and Vasquez didn't want some jerk on the trolley telling him what do. But he didn't want to make trouble, either, so he moved his foot off the seat, leaving his leg up on the seat next to him.

The man approached again. This time, with a purpose.

"You and me are getting off at the next stop," the weekend warrior informed Vasquez, who scoffed and said, "Who are you?"

"You're arguing with me," said the man. "Do you want to get arrested?" He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled out a badge: Sgt. Henry Arrants, Santa Clara County Sheriff's Deputy.

Arrants escorted Vasquez from the train at the next stop. Another undercover deputy, Eddie Perkins, got off the train and asked Vasquez if he was armed.

"What are you talking about? I'm going to a concert," Vasquez said.

Arrants began writing out a ticket for $76. It was one of 138 citations issued last September for violation of transit ordinance TD-6.1 section 22(j): "No person shall put his/her foot on any seat provided for passengers of a transit facility."

THE SIGNS ON the light rail show a crisply uniformed officer talking congenially with passengers. But the reality is that many of the transit patrollers--the sheriff's deputies--are undercover, and some of them are testy.

Deputies Arrants and Perkins were taking part in "Operation Clean Sweep" on the light rail between Younger and Santa Teresa, instituted by the Transit Authority and the Sheriff's Department to crack down on minor offenses. Hoping to make the trains friendlier to riders, the transit district instructed the sheriff's deputies to work undercover and to approach rule-breakers by posing as private citizens.

"What we were instructed to do in cases like this is approach the subject prior to identifying ourselves as officers," Perkins explains. "If there is resistance, we approach again, identify ourselves and cite."

But this approach has resulted in a flood of complaints to the transit district and the Office of Human Relations by people who have been issued citations and by witnesses disturbed by the confusing behavior of the stealth cops.

The transit district's rationale for the "do ask, don't tell" approach is that it shouldn't take a cop to make sure transit riders observe the rules. "Any private citizen has the right to enforce the rules," Perkins adds.

Sounds logical in theory, but in practice the policy has led to awkward confrontations on the light rail between undercover cops and transit riders who are flustered or even intimidated when approached by a stranger. Vasquez's case was particularly bizarre because clearly the man, whoever he was, had no interest in actually using the seat Vasquez's feet were on.

"It's this kind of behavior that drives a wedge between young people and police," alleges John Crew, director of the Police Practices Project of the ACLU. "The more reasonable approach would have been for the officer to identify himself and then tell the kid the rules."

In recent weeks, complaints have caught the attention of transit district management and the sheriff's top brass. "The Sheriff's Department talked to the deputies," confirms transit spokesperson Norma Newman. "They are going back and reiterating our policy on how they should approach people."

Newman says transit police have a "great deal" of discretion in enforcing the rules.

"A major part of a police officer's job is using discretion," says Crew, who took issue with Arrants and Perkin's approach. "As a police officer one always has to ask, what is the goal?"

"It seems like we should be promoting mass transit," points out Jim McEntee, who has seen some complaints come into the Santa Clara County Human Relations Department. "It seems like there are more important things to do."

But Operation Clean Sweep and the transit district policy of enforcing the rules with undercover cops who don't identify themselves as officers is likely to continue. "We've got undercover officers on board our system to protect our property and our assets," says Newman, who explained that the transit district spends $1 million each year cleaning up graffiti. "If there was no violation of the rules, this would not happen."

INSTANCES OF APPARENT heavy-handedness in the policing of the light rail come in a year in which the number of full-time sheriff's deputies on the transit system has been cut by 10 positions. The deputies were replaced by rent-a-cops from the Wackenhut private security firm in a deal brokered last February by transit director Peter Cipolla.

The transit police force is currently composed of 24 sheriff's deputies and 41 Wackenhut guards. While the rent-a-cops can write citations, they cannot make arrests. They have to call either the sheriff or a local police department for assistance. "Our concern is what happens to police coverage," says Jim Tomaino, president of the San Jose Police Officer's Association, of the reduction in the number of deputies. "I'm not sure how many sheriff's positions they ended up losing [to Wackenhut]; we have to pick up the slack."

Further spreading the sheriff's forces thin is that many of the officer's positions in the transit district are now being filled by reservists rather than regular full-time deputies. Reservists are generally volunteer but sometimes hired on a "job basis" for $21 an hour. Jose Salcido, vice president of the Deputy Sheriff's Association, said sheriff's reserves have almost as much authority as full-time deputies, but with less training. "They don't get a whole lot of plainclothes [work]," he says.

Hiring of full-time deputies at the Sheriff's Department is frozen, leaving patrols increasingly overworked and increasing the average age to the mid-40s. "I know they're not happy campers," adds Salcido.

AS YET, THERE are no signs on the light rail warning riders to keep their feet off the seats. In order to clear up some of the ambiguity surrounding what must be the light rail's most frequently broken rule, Newman says "feet down" signs will go up in December.

In the meantime, it looks like Roberto Vasquez will be putting in extra hours at his job at a bagel shop in San Jose to cover the $76 citation. He explained his side of the story to Commissioner Harold Cole in traffic court, arguing it was his ankle, not his foot, on the seat. A weak case, but he would like to have challenged the way in which he was approached by Arrants and Perkins: "What would you do if some dude came up and told you what to do on the light rail?" he asks.

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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