The first bullet was like a car backfiring. Instincts kicked in after the second and third shots, and the officers dropped to the ground.
It was around 11:00 p.m. on Friday night in Chula Vista, in view of four buses and a trolley full of passengers, when at least three men opened fire on four armed officers at the Bayfront and E Street trolley station.
Officer Robert Austin took cover behind a truck when the shots rang out. He grabbed his radio and called it in. A ticket inspector yelled to the bus drivers and trolley conductors to keep passengers inside with the doors locked. Then Austin drew his gun.
Minutes before, the shooter, described by officers as Hispanic, in his 20s and driving a grey Oldsmobile, had confronted the fare-checking security guards on the trolley platform, and told them this was “his station, his neighborhood, and we shouldn’t be there,” according to Austin.
Austin and the other officers are security guards for Universal Protection Service — the nation’s fifth-largest private security company. Universal works under a $23 million contract with San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System to provide armed guards who patrol, protect and arrest throughout the public agency’s 53 transit stations and on board a portion of the 160 trolleys that run between downtown San Diego and the Mexican border.
A recent inewsource investigation that included interviews with more than a dozen Universal guards found many of them unprepared for most emergency situations — such as an ‘active shooter’ or a bomb threat. The guards told inewsource they don’t receive essential training from their company — even though the training is highlighted as a major selling point in the company’s contracts with Metropolitan.
The story also documented a lack of contractual oversight by Metropolitan Transit System.
Metropolitan and the North County Transit District are among only a handful of locations in the country where the responsibility for guarding a mass transit system is contracted out to an armed, private security force — instead of a police force.
Last month, in response to the investigation, Metropolitan board members called for a review of Universal’s contracts.
Early Monday afternoon, they received an email about Friday night’s event, sent by Metropolitan’s Chief of Police William Burke. Four sentences summed up the details:
Austin, one of many officers with previous security, police or military experience throughout Universal, believes the details left out of the memo are significant for both the board and the public to know.
“I’m not calling anybody a liar,” he said about the incident report, “but maybe the reporting parties didn’t ask the right people, because that’s definitely not what happened.”
“They were shooting at us, they were aiming at us,” he said, “it happened on our property.”
Austin said crimes against transit officers are routinely swept aside and never discussed. When the issue is raised, he said, no one seems to want to go near it.
There is irony in the situation: Austin spoke before Metropolitan’s board on Nov. 10, 2011.
He talked about the dangerous working conditions, about the ever-present gang-bangers, about trouble on the Orange line, and about a lack of basic medical coverage.
Harry Mathis, the chairman of Metropolitan’s board, told Austin he was addressing the wrong forum. He said Austin’s subject matter was part of a labor dispute between a contractor and its employees. When Councilwoman and Metropolitan board member Marti Emerald stepped into the conversation to ask if more could be done to look into the matter, Mathis struck his gavel on the sounding block and declared the subject closed.
More than two years later, on Feb. 21, 2013, Mathis joined Metropolitan CEO Paul Jablonski in responding to the board’s calls for inquiries into Universal. Again, he said the whole matter was a labor dispute.
Universal employees acknowledge the strain between the company’s employees and its management, with stalled union talks compounding the tension. But money aside, Austin and his colleagues told inewsource, safety for both the passengers and the officers should come first.
Safety for officers who are routinely expected to deal with dangerous situations arising along the trolley lines, who ride alone and at night along the southernmost portion of the nation’s second-busiest rail corridor. Officers who carry guns, make $10.50 an hour, and lack basic (and required) CPR and first-aid certification, along with basic health vaccinations which resulted in a $20,270 fine levied by California’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety in 2012. (story continues below graphic)
The shooting Friday night marked Austin’s fourth violent altercation since the start of 2013.
“Can’t wait for summertime,” he said.
Although at least four shots were fired, no one was hit Friday night. The shooter and passengers made it out of sight before any of the officers could “get a clean shot.”
Guards told inewsource they’re even hesitant to fire their own weapons in self-defense, as it usually results in termination.
“It’s like an unwritten rule for us,” Austin said, “…they’d find a way to fire us.”
Despite the dozens of witnesses, the incident never made San Diego’s newspaper, radio or TV broadcasts. The surveillance camera photos taken Friday night at the station are, according to Austin, “horrible.”
“The guys that were shooting at us looked like three or four shadows,” he said.
The shooters have yet to be found. The Chula Vista Police Department is handling the case, but as of Wednesday, March 13, they had no suspects in custody.
Metropolitan’s email Monday stated that in response to the officer who “reported hearing shots fired,” the agency “has increased the number of personnel working in the area, including temporarily assigning two armed security officers to the Bayfront /E Street station platform.”
At 8:30 p.m. Monday night in Chula Vista, just seven hours after Metropolitan’s email was sent, one Universal officer patrolled the Bayfront station alone.
“If they want us to continue to do a good job,” Austin said about Universal, “they’ve got to make sure that we’re around and breathing to keep doing that good job.”
Austin is frustrated with the situation, and believes that even if he was shot Friday night, nothing would change within the private security company or with Metropolitan’s hands-off practice toward its contractor.
“Nobody is asking for a big paycheck,” he said, “we’re just asking for maybe a partner or two, maybe some better equipment, maybe cameras that actually work…”
“They charge us with the safety of the passengers,” Austin said, “the safety of the employees — but who’s in charge of our safety?”
Neither Metropolitan or its board members responded to inewsource requests for interviews on Wednesday.
An interactive explainer of Universal, Metropolitan and other related players from the inewsource article, “Security Breach.”
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