Big Brother is watching – and lecturing – Sacramento transit riders

Sacramento Regional Transit has begun scolding scofflaws via loudspeaker at light rail stations, and officials say the practice is causing loiterers to leave and others to straighten up their behavior.

The new “Voice of God” approach to security, which came online last month, is unusual and possibly unique among transit agencies. Security officers at an operations center downtown monitor live video feeds from light rail cameras and use new public address systems at stations to call out people who loiter, smoke, drink alcohol, fight or otherwise break the rules.

The effect, as seen in several videos released by the agency, is at times comical. The announcements sometimes startle the person being addressed, causing them to jerk their heads up and around to see where the voice is coming from.

SacRT security chief Lisa Hinz, a Sacramento Police Department lieutenant, said most people are complying with the instructions they receive from afar. “I’m pleasantly surprised,” she said. “We’re immediately able to stop bad behavior.”

Hinz said the agency’s policy is to address the person respectfully. A typical approach: Sir in the red shirt, please be advised, smoking is not allowed in light rail stations.

The loudspeaker communication is one way. If the person does not comply, the operations center worker will advise that person that an officer or transit agent is being dispatched to the station. Violators of SacRT ordinances can be issued a citation.

In one video released by SacRT, a man is sitting against a wall smoking at a downtown station. He suddenly looks skyward, then right and left. When he sees the overhead camera, he waves in acknowledgment, takes a last hurried drag on his cigarette, puts it out, waves to the camera again, then gets up and leaves the station.

In another video at the Royal Oaks station, a man is sitting on a low wall with what looks to be a bottle of alcohol next to him. He glances up once, then twice, a surprised look on his face. Then he grabs the bottle, tosses it quickly into a dirt planter area behind the wall and walks away.

“Unfortunately, the way that he disposes of the bottle is not ideal, but he does stop drinking,” Hinz said.

Video cameras with the ability to pan, tilt and zoom have been in place at all 52 stations since last year. The loudspeakers are in operation in about 30 stations and should be installed in all stations by this fall, Hinz said.

The agency typically employs guards in person at stations to manage behavior. But not all stations are patrolled in person, and stations are not patrolled all the time, Hinz said. The agency last year opened a joint operations center with city police on Richards Boulevard to fill in the gaps. Workers are now there on duty all hours during the week, Hinz said.

Operations center supervisor Vitaliy Yakimchuk said dispatchers watch camera feeds on a rotating basis, jumping from station to station, but focus more on stations that are busy or that have more problems.

SacRT’s PA system use appears to be unusual for a transit district. Local officials say they believe it is cutting edge.

Portland, San Diego and San Jose, which have light rail systems with open stations similar to Sacramento’s, report that they do not use public address systems to enforce rules. A spokesman for BART, the Bay Area-wide commuter rail system, said station agents in booths monitor platform activity via live cameras and use loudspeakers to warn people to step away from the yellow safety strip area as trains approach the platform. But, he said, the agents do not use the system to enforce behavior rules.

The use of cameras and other new technology by law enforcement has come under scrutiny by some privacy advocates and civil liberties activists who say they fear government can use that technology to target individuals for monitoring. They also warn that abuse can occur when law enforcement agencies employ technology without adequate public input, and controls, up front.

When contacted by The Bee, however, representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, said they haven’t formed an opinion of SacRT’s use of loudspeakers and surveillance cameras.

A bill currently in the Legislature would require police agencies, including SacRT, to draw up a surveillance policy by July 2018 and have that policy approved during a public hearing by the agency’s board of elected officials.

Under that bill, SB 21 by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, any new surveillance technology considered for use after that date also would have to have local board approval before being put to use.

The goal, Hill has said, is to make sure the public has a say on how law enforcement uses cameras and recorders.

SacRT security chief Hinz said she believes transit riders, especially women, will feel safer as a result of the public address system. “You know that there are people watching and monitoring behavior, and can dispatch a police officer.”

Light rail rider Elizabeth Stevenson, a downtown state worker, said this week she likes the idea, although she hasn’t seen it in use yet. A year ago, an angry male stranger at a station began yelling at her, causing her to fear for her safety. “It does make me feel better” to know someone may be watching, and could speak to the man and dispatch police units, she said.

Lynnette Green, a state worker and rider, said she wants to see SacRT do more about people who cause a “ruckus” on trains, which have cameras but are not yet monitored in real time. She agreed with Stevenson that the PA use may encourage more people to ride because they will feel safer.

“Big Brother is watching,” she said. “In a good way.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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