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Originally published July 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 15, 2009 at 4:19 PM

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Sound Transit pumps up light-rail security with lights, cameras, officers

Sound Transit's light-rail security plan includes dozens of officers and strategically placed cameras, lights and landscaping.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Link light-rail basics

SERVICE BEGINS SATURDAY after trains carrying the mayors of Seattle and Tukwila meet at the Mount Baker Station for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Special hours this weekend: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Rides are free both days.

Regular hours: 5 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Saturday; 6 a.m.-midnight Sundays, holidays. Trains will arrive as often as every 7.5 minutes at peak times.

Fares: $1.75-$2.50 for adults; FlexPass, PugetPass and bus transfers may be applied to the fare. (Details on fares, passes and transfers are available in our interactive guide at seattletimes.com)

Bikes: Each station has bicycle parking; at six stations, bike lockers can be reserved. To take a bike on the train, board at the doors marked with a bicycle symbol. Use hooks in the bicycle-storage area of each car. Limit: four bikes per car.

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Ron Griffin, a 29-year veteran of the King County Sheriff's Office, was given a desk and a chair — the phone and computer came later — to start building a brand-new police department to patrol Sound Transit's 14-mile light-rail line.

That was almost 11 months ago.

With light rail ready to start service Saturday, Griffin now has a 27-member force under his command — and his team of officers has new patches, uniforms and black-and-white patrol cars, all identifying them as Sound Transit Police.

The department, made up of sworn sheriff's deputies, includes the chief, five sergeants, two detectives and 20 patrol officers. A civilian crime analyst will also work with police to track trends and trouble spots on the Central Link line that runs from Westlake Center to Tukwila.

The new police force will patrol train cars, stations and platforms and investigate the kinds of crimes — assaults, robberies, drug dealing and gang posturing — typical to bus and rail systems across the country.

Skateboard offenders

Officers will also go after misdemeanor offenders — those who, say, are caught urinating in elevators, being disruptive on trains or grinding platform benches with their skateboards.

There's plenty that Griffin and Hamid Qaasim, Sound Transit's chief safety, security and quality-assurance officer, don't want to divulge about police operations and safety plans for the new line.

But as Seattle-area residents get ready to get around in a whole new way, the men say a lot of thought has gone into everything from lights and station design to surveillance cameras and emergency phones.

"We know mass transit provides an ability for people from all walks to travel. We also know there's a criminal element that uses it as well," Griffin said. "We're taking proper precautions so the riding public has an enjoyable experience."

Now working out of makeshift headquarters at Union Station in downtown Seattle, Griffin's department will move to Sodo by the end of the year, after a $265,000 renovation transforms an old maintenance building into a police station with its own evidence room, gun lockers and computer terminals where officers can file their reports.

Contract with sheriff

Over the next 3 ½ years, Sound Transit will spend $16.8 million on police services through its contract with the sheriff's office, Qaasim said.

During that same time, $14 million will be spent on additional security measures, including 65 unarmed security guards and 12 fare-enforcement officers, he said.

The security guards will act as extra eyes for police, radioing information when a crime is under way or when they notice suspicious behavior.

Fare-enforcement officers, meanwhile, will be charged with writing $124 tickets to anyone found on a train or platform without a valid ticket or transfer.

Transit officers and security guards will be on duty when the trains are running, from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday and from 6 a.m. to midnight on Sunday and holidays.

Making people feel safe is a top priority, and safety considerations were built into the design of each station: There are clear sight lines on all platforms, eliminating blind spots for surveillance cameras. Lights and emergency phones were deliberately placed. Even the landscaping was carefully considered, Qaasim said.

Surfaces, from window glazing to platform walls, were designed so graffiti can be quickly removed.

In April, the Legislature amended the state law governing unlawful bus conduct, expanding it to include all forms of public transit.

Smoking, drinking alcohol, spitting, littering, listening to music that's too loud, urinating and defecating in a transit vehicle or at a transit station (except in bathrooms, of course) are among the offenses that constitute unlawful transit conduct, a misdemeanor.

The updated law, which takes effect July 26, makes it illegal to use skates or ride skateboards in transit facilities, though it's OK to "walk while wearing skates or carry a skateboard" on a platform, train or bus, the law says.

It's also now illegal to throw objects, gamble or impersonate a transit official in any public transit vehicle or facility.

To enforce laws and heighten riders' sense of security, uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives will regularly hop on and off trains and patrol the streets between light-rail stations, Griffin said.

"There's drug dealing any place where the public hangs out, and if you don't address that, you could have someone open up shop on a particular platform," Griffin said. "Any time you have drug activity in an area, you have the opportunity for violence to break out."

Similarly, Griffin wants to keep a lid on gang activity — and is relying on the expertise of local gang detectives to help transit officers identify "the hard players" and recognize gang signs and behaviors.

Though gang activity has picked up in the Rainier Valley in recent years, Griffin and Qaasim say the neighborhood won't be singled out for special attention.

"It's not just the Rainier Valley," Griffin said of gang and youth violence. "It's a regional problem," he said, pointing out that his officers are also responsible for patrolling Sound Transit facilities in Federal Way, Kent, Auburn and Renton.

Surveillance cameras — installed on every platform and in every elevator and train car — continually record what's going on. Even if an officer or security guard doesn't witness a crime, surveillance footage can later be used to identify a suspect and give an officer probable cause to make an arrest, Griffin said.

Keith Sherry, a rail-operations chief, recently demonstrated the zoom capability of a camera mounted into the ceiling at University Street Station, inside the downtown transit tunnel.

Sherry sat at a console inside a building on Sixth Avenue South, just east of Safeco Field, where giant screens display the location of each light-rail train. On another monitor, Sherry has access to nearly 200 views from different cameras.

He pulled up the University Street Station camera, training it on a sign posted on the wall. It warned: Activities in this facility may be visually and audibly monitored. Sherry panned to a group of people waiting for a bus, focusing the camera on a middle-age man.

"He's got dark hair with a little bit of gray and he's wearing a white T-shirt beneath his black Jordan shirt, bluejeans and white tennis shoes," Sherry said. "See, that's the kind of information we'd give to a police dispatcher."

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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