Universal Protection Service

Universal Protection Service, which receives $9 million a year to provide security officers for passengers traveling throughout San Diego County, was on the hot seat during back-to-back meetings last Thursday as the the boards of San Diego’s two transit districts questioned whether the company was meeting the safety and training requirements laid out in their contracts.

The president of Universal made a trip down from Orange County to listen as his company’s performance came under fire. In one case, an audit found serious problems with Universal’s paperwork, including missing firearms certifications and basic training records. In another case, board members questioned the adequacy of training and vowed to continue the inquiry at a later date.

The findings were a direct result of an inewsource investigation that found officer training, passenger safety and overall accountability lacking in regard to transit security.

One district laid out a corrective action plan, and demanded Universal fix the mess — quickly. With a contract set to expire in November, curious board members, and millions of dollars hanging in the balance, Universal’s president had his work cut out for him.

The men in suits

Two men, tall and in well-pressed suits, sat quietly in the audience during last week’s board meeting of the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS).

The younger of the two, Steve Claton, is the president of the nation’s fifth-largest security company — Universal Protection Service. Ninety miles south of his office in Santa Ana, on the tenth floor of MTS’ downtown headquarters, Claton watched for nearly three hours as the board ticked down the agenda items to the one he was waiting for. The one that dealt with his multi-million-dollar contract.

His counterpart, Ken Moller, sat next to him. Universal’s regional vice president was as quiet during that morning meeting as he had been for the past several months inewsource attempted to reach him to discuss its investigation into Universal’s operations in San Diego.

The investigation, published in mid-February, detailed both public and employee safety issues concerning the rapidly-expanding company’s training methods, as well as its overall culture and its taxpayer-funded contract with San Diego’s two public transportation agencies.

Both MTS and San Diego’s North County Transit District (NCTD) pay Universal to patrol, protect and arrest throughout their hundreds of stations, trolleys and trains spread between Oceanside and the Mexican border.

Over the past several months, more than a dozen of the company’s employees have come forward to discuss how unprepared, unequipped and untrained they are to guard the millions of passengers who ride through their jurisdiction each year. In most cases, they say they agreed to talk because their concerns about their own safety and the safety of the passengers outweigh their fears of being fired.

Money, Power and Transit

Universal’s contracts with MTS and NCTD guarantee a certain level of training for its officers — the officers say they don’t receive it.

MTS and NCTD planned to address some of the story’s findings, in public, during their respective board meetings last Thursday.

Claton and Moller were there to assess the fallout.

The system

The presentations at the meetings were markedly similar, though the outcomes differed greatly.

At MTS, Bill Burke, the agency’s chief of police, walked board members through a slideshow highlighting the safety and security of the network. There were only 31 assaults against officers last year, and aggravated assaults and robberies were down almost 50 percent.

“We feel that’s because of the effectiveness of our system,” he said.

This is how he said the system works: MTS employs inspectors to issue citations to passengers who travel without a fare, put their feet up on seats, smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol in trolleys and stations.

As a result, passengers become angry, even violent, from time to time, so MTS pays Universal $5.8 million a year to provide both armed and unarmed security guards to protect its inspectors, along with a host of other responsibilities like first aid and emergency response.

NCTD pays Universal $3.1 million a year for the same services up north.

The job is dangerous and assaults are frequent. In 2009, two officers were shot while another shot and killed a 20-year-old at the Vista Transit Center. One guard was held hostage at gunpoint in November 2011, another put in the hospital last Thanksgiving.

Just a few weeks ago, four officers were shot at while patrolling the transit center in Chula Vista.

But the guards and inspectors aren’t the only layer of the system in place, Burke explained. There are also federal agencies, police departments and county sheriffs who respond to emergencies, who would take the lead during a shooting, for instance, or a bomb scare.

Burke spent much of the presentation on the training and expertise of those agencies.

Claton and Moller watched as the Board Chairman, Harry Mathis, congratulated Burke on a job well-done.

When you look at the security statistics, Mathis said, “I don’t think anybody does it better.”

Board member David Alvarez flipped on his microphone.

“I’m not sure the right message was conveyed to you,” he said to Burke, “about why we were requesting this.”

Alvarez said he was interested in the training of Universal officers, not other federal and state agencies. As he asked questions, board member John Minto stepped in.

“We have the representatives from [Universal] here,” Minto said. “Could they come up?”

Problems and solutions

Claton and Moller took seats at the speaker’s table.

According to Moller, only 20 of Universal’s 172 officers are certified with Peace Officer Standards and Training — a basic requirement in regular law enforcement, and a guarantee in Universal’s contract with MTS.

“Why aren’t they all?” asked Alvarez.

There’s an issue getting them into the classes, Moller said. Those classes fill up quick, and they’re booked.

Just 44 of the officers have completed the necessary 170 hour basic training course, according to Burke’s presentation. That’s due to the security industry’s high turnover rate, he explained.

Universal Officer
A Universal officer watches the trolley pass at San Diego’s Old Town Transit Center | photo by Brad Racino

The other contractually-required classes are given internally, Claton assured, and all officers are either well-trained or on their way there.

Minto, a 30-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, wanted to see for himself.

Open your books, he said, and “show who has been trained.”

“Put some of the [concerns] to rest,” he said.

“That’s exactly our goal,” Claton responded.

A future meeting was discussed without details.

The president and VP made straight for Minto, and walked him out of the building toward the parking garage.

A different tone

A few hours later, Claton and Moller were standing in the hall outside NCTD’s monthly meeting in its Oceanside headquarters. It was less than two weeks after the agency shut down its SPRINTER rail line due to brake compliance issues.

The room was packed, with staff, reporters and citizens waiting for word of when the commuter line would resume service.

NCTD’s Chief of Security, Tom Zoll, stood with Moller and Claton until he was called to give a rare public security briefing.

Like his counterpart down south, Zoll spent time discussing the “layered approach” NCTD takes to its security. He cited his alma mater, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, as an example.

Zoll’s briefing was quickly followed by Robert Threatt, a compliance officer who had just recently audited Universal’s training files as a direct result of the inewsource investigation in February.

An internal memo specified,

”In auditing the files, we sought to confirm whether or not UPS and their security guards were meeting the training and certification requirements specified in their contract with NCTD. In total, we reviewed 36 training files, which represented all of the guards who are active on the NCTD contract at this time.”

Claton and Moller watched behind the glass into the boardroom as Threatt summarized the major findings:

-28 files with missing or expired first aid and CPR cards

-17 missing chemical agent certifications

There was no documentation in any of the files that guards,

-maintained a valid driver’s license

-performed annual or quarterly firearms recertifications or

-received Peace Officers Standards in Training (POST) training

–all are required by the contract between NCTD and Universal.


The two men weren’t called to the table, and weren’t questioned by the board. According to staff, Claton and Moller had already agreed to all NCTD directions for remediation.

Tony Kranz, a board member from Encinitas, wanted to know how long Universal was out of compliance.

“At least a year,” Zoll said.

“I’m not suggesting that this was the case,” Kranz said, “but I can see where the lapse in compliance would be advantageous to the contractor, in that they save money.”

“I’m wondering if there’s any recourse in any aspect of the contract,” he said.

Moller and Claton continued to watch as the threat of penalty hung in the air.

“Not in the current contract, as written,” said Matt Tucker, NCTD’s executive director. He added that going forward, the agency would be conducting spot audits, being proactive, requiring its contractors to implement new compliance measures.

Zoll added that the agency was in the process of putting together a new call for bids on the security contract, as Universal’s is set to expire in November.

“There’s a lot of changes in that contract,” he said, “I think it’ll be much easier in the future to maintain.”

A few minutes later, Zoll accompanied the two executives as they exited the building, their meetings finally over — and for Claton, only the long road left to watch on his way home.

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Brad Racino is a multimedia reporter for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, email bradracino@inewsource.org or call (619) 594-3569.

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Brad Racino was the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in...