‘Work in progress’: Calgary Transit defends security decisions to ticket less, hire civilian security

CTrain riders who say they rarely see security teams handing out tickets or enforcing anti-smoking rules are right — personnel have cut back.

And it’s not just a COVID thing. Ever since the province eliminated warrants and potential jail time for certain minor offences in 2017, transit security teams have cut back on issuing tickets they know likely won’t be paid anyway.

They aim for education instead, but it’s a “work in progress,” says Will Fossen, superintendent of public safety and enforcement for Calgary Transit.

“We’re more about education. We will use enforcement when necessary,” he said

When CBC Calgary launched this series on transit safety, hundreds of Calgary residents joined our text-messaging app to share their experiences.

On enforcement, there’s two points of view.

Some riders are worried for the health and safety of those in rough shape using drugs at the station. They worry about the criminalization of drug use and homelessness.

Another large group of riders are worried that the rules for respectful use of transit aren’t enforced, much less having enough of a security presence to prevent assault or more serious crime.

They complained about peace officers ticketing people for jaywalking but not drug use and rarely appearing on many station platforms, private security guards staring at their phones while on shift, and police or peace officers turning a blind eye to fare evasion. Some riders even sent in photos.

Superintendent Will Fossen says TransitWatch received more than 13,000 texts in 2021. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Lots of people wrestled with both of those concerns.

“What you do see a lot of is peace officers sitting in vans at train stations. You never see them ticketing or clearing people out of shelters,” said Johann McCuaig, a transit rider and former security officer for local night clubs who followed up his text message with an interview.

People using drugs know this, he said. 

“It’s quite acceptable to use drugs in front of them… and there’s not an arrest.”

Shift away from ticketing

When we took those concerns to Calgary Transit, Fossen described how his team’s role shifted in response to the opioid crisis.

He says his officers now spend a good chunk of their time offering a frontline response to the crisis.

Between February 2018 and February 2022, peace officers administered 1,440 doses of Narcan to people on transit property.

“That averages to about 30 a month over that time frame. That’s something we never did before,” he said. 

“Originally, Narcan was brought in to protect the officers against accidental exposure to fentanyl and has now become a life-saving tool.”

They’re also checking on people who might be in distress more often. That’s clear in the number of reports they file for “use of force” – each time an officer puts their hand on someone to shake them awake, they need to record it. 

“Whether it’s ‘Sir are you okay?,’ waking someone up or placing them in handcuffs when they’re under arrest [it’s classified as use of force]. That spiked during the pandemic because we’ve had to move people along who had no place else to go.”

Calgary Transit says 20 security guards are stationed at LRT stations across the city every day to provide a more ‘visual presence’ for people who would rather speak with a person than use a help button. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

As for the contracted security guards that some riders aren’t impressed with, Fossen says they’re not part of his team.

They were brought in as part of a special initiative to provide a more “visual presence” for people who would rather speak with a person than use a help button. 

Every day there are 20 contracted security guards at different CTrain stations across Calgary.

Their role is to report incidents to the transit operations control centre before they become an issue. The dispatchers then send peace officers, police or other emergency services.

Eventually, Fossen would like to see those security guards have more training and responsibilities, and be more integrated with the security team.

“That’s something I’ve been pushing for for a couple of years,” he said. 

Calls for increased enforcement presence

Transit commuters who wrote to CBC Calgary want to see change, which for many includes tackling the root causes of addiction and homelessness, in addition to enforcement against crime and disorder.

Many said they wanted security to be more visible and proactive – even riding the trains – although some worried they might be too rough or aggressive with people already struggling. 

CTrain rider and information technology worker John Marini said he’d like to see dedicated transit peace officers at problem stations during rush hour – not security guards with no power to enforce rules.

Calgary transit commuter John McCuaig says it’s not only drug use making people feel uncomfortable, but crimes including threats, thefts and assaults. (Submitted by John McCuaig)

“If there’s increased security, it’s like where? I have seen security guards at Marlborough in the afternoon but they’re walking around chatting to each other, their hands jammed in their pockets, and they’re looking at their feet.”

McCuaig said he wants increased security because it’s not just people feeling uncomfortable around people using drugs. 

“There are a bunch of great people that are addicted to drugs and they’re wonderful people that are sadly living on the street. They deserve help. But there is [also] a giant group of people that are predatory criminals that are riding up and down the train line through neighbourhoods and preying on people’s property to fund their addiction.”

‘We don’t have the tools to deal with it’

Some transit employees also want to see change. One bus driver, who CBC News agreed not to name because she worries she will face retribution at work, said operators feel just as uncomfortable and unsafe. 

Recently, passenger on her bus said a man with a utility knife was threatening riders in the back of the bus.

They expected her to do something about it, but all she’s trained to do is call dispatch.

“Customers on the bus were a little antsy and worried and they should be…We are not trained to deal with that and we don’t have the tools to deal with it on the job,” she said. 

“I’m at the whim of the controllers that tell me what I have to do. When they’re not there to see the situation, it’s hard for them to grasp the seriousness of it.”

As for the union representing transit peace officers, it says if Calgary Transit wants to get serious about enforcement, they have to deal with chronic staffing issues first. Calgary Transit says they have 113 peace officers. 

“[But] we haven’t seen them at full strength for a long time. And that’s been one of the complaints, certainly from my members… there are many cases where they’re on shift well understaffed,” said D’Arcy Lanovaz, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 38.

“You can have only about three or maybe four officers for the entire city on some of these shifts, so they’re being overwhelmed out there.”

He says the union is advocating to the city to hire transit peace officers until their ranks reach more than 140. 

“That is the number we need out there if we’re going to adequately staff for public safety.”


Transit safety

This is a community-driven project exploring safety issues on Calgary Transit.

We wonder what will happen to the City of Calgary’s net zero and transportation plans if the drug use, unpredictability and disorder continue. Has it changed the way you or your children get around the city?

Add your cellphone number to join and let us know.

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