Would proposed Amtrak police cuts impact New London?
New London — An Amtrak plan to downsize its police force would cut the New England division in half over the next three years and likely affect Union Station, Amtrak police union President William Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said he learned from police leadership that Amtrak plans to reduce the number of sworn officers nationwide from 454 to 369. The New England division, which spans Boston to New Haven, would go from 64 officers to 32.
Amtrak also plans to cut 15 “civilian” workers, most of whom are dispatchers or corporate security guards, Gonzalez said.
Amtrak officers respond when trains strike pedestrians, or when passengers are having medical issues or are intoxicated and need to be removed. They can arrest people who commit crimes and sometimes are asked by other agencies to detain people on warrants. They deal with lost baggage and other “customer-oriented” cases, too.
Amtrak also has a counterterrorism team and a K-9 unit.
Gonzalez said the New England division handled 1,800 incidents from 2017 to 2018 but saw 2,600 incidents from May 1, 2018, to April 30, 2019. He cited increased ridership and inadequate police staffing as possible reasons for the increase.
“So the number is up,” Gonzalez said. “How can someone justify reducing officers? There’s no logic.”
In a statement, Amtrak said the company is “evaluating the deployment of our Amtrak Police Department staff” to ensure safety for customers and employees.
“As part of this evaluation, we anticipate adjusting some of our staffing size and deployment levels, including increasing the presence of officers onboard trains,” Amtrak said.
Gonzalez, who said the Amtrak force already has 20 vacancies, took issue with the statement.
“They’re painting the picture of adding officers on train rides ... which sounds great,” he said. “But they’re not addressing” the proposed payroll reduction.
In New London, three officers assigned to Union Station have seen about 1,500 incidents over the past four years, Gonzalez said.
If the staff were cut in half, he said, officers wouldn’t be at the station as much to deter potential crime.
He said New London police could step in, but the city could charge Amtrak for the service.
“So now they’re taking an officer away from New London to respond to a train incident and Amtrak is still going to get billed,” he said.
City police union President Todd Lynch said anything that would further strain his understaffed department is “no good.”
Per ordinance, New London should have 80 officers but has closer to 70.
He said city officers have a “very good” relationship with Amtrak police and often help them when people are trespassing on the tracks or creating problems on trains. He said Amtrak officers sometimes aid city cops, too.
“It would certainly put a stress on our department,” Lynch said. “We’re still not at the manpower strength we want. If on top of that we have to do for others, that’s certainly problematic.”
New London Mayor Michael Passero said after talking to city police Chief Peter Reichard and Chief Administrative Officer Steven Fields, he believes a smaller Amtrak force “would not have a significant impact” because there isn’t much crime on Amtrak property in the city.
Still, Passero said, the transit officers are part of the downtown fabric — he often sees them near the station and at coffee shops — and he would be sad to see less of them.
“It’s been reassuring having them working in town and I certainly hope that continues,” he said. “But we would be able to adjust if Amtrak decided to pull back."
Gonzalez said Amtrak officials have assured him there won’t be layoffs, but he’s skeptical because just 56 employees are eligible for retirement right now. Amtrak officials might be mistaken to think another 44 will accept some type of buyout package, he said.
Gonzalez said he’s also concerned Amtrak won’t wait until 2022 to reach its staffing goals. He said the company could save between $34 million and $39 million if it slashes the 85 officers and 15 civilian positions now, compared to about $22 million if it does so over time.
He said he'll be spending Wednesday in Washington to discuss his concerns with lawmakers.
“The whole thing just seems like a big, selfish move done by corporate to please its pockets instead of looking at the bigger picture of the safety of officers and of the public,” he said.
Amtrak has been weighing cuts since at least last fall, when it considered outsourcing its food service and slashing 1,700 jobs in the process. It also closed a California call center in January, eliminating 550 jobs.
Amtrak, which serves more than 500 destinations in 46 states, is federally subsidized and in 2017 brought in $3.3 billion in revenue. But a company report shows it still had a total operating loss of $194 million that fiscal year.
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