It took just minutes for transit enforcement officers Bill Perivolaris and Carlos Uncao to nab the first person sneaking into Spadina station on Friday night.
Mr. Perivolaris and Mr. Uncao were there to spot fare evaders, and found them in spades: The scofflaws quickly became a steady stream and at times the situation bordered on comical.
There were the three skinny girls who squeezed themselves together through an unmanned turnstile. Then came the exchange students who claimed not to know how the system worked – despite having been here seven months. And just after midnight there was the emotional meltdown of a well-dressed and well-refreshed man who tried to sneak in, smoking.
The latest TTC estimate, in 2010 indicates that the losses from fare evasion are equal to 2 per cent of revenue collected from passengers. Those on the ground in the system – in the collector booths, operating the surface vehicles and patrolling the platforms – believe the problem is vastly worse, giving estimates that range from 5 to 30 per cent.
Mr. Perivolaris and Mr. Uncao are veterans who have been with the unit more than 15 years each. On a recent Friday night they were tasked with Zone 1, which runs from Union station north to Eglinton and from Spadina to Broadview stations. They were joined by a reporter and photographer for much of the 11 1/2 -hour shift.
In a lull, the officers rhyme off the many ways people bilk the system.
“There’s double-ups [at automatic entrances], there’s [abuse of] transfers, there’s counterfeit tokens and metropasses, there’s turnstile jumpers,” Mr. Uncao said. “It boggles the mind.”
Even using the TTC’s more conservative estimate of fare evasion, the system is out about $400,000 weekly. This is money the cash-strapped transit service, which last month boosted the token price by a nickel, can’t afford to lose. And the transit enforcement unit is the strongest line of defence against the problem.
Shadowing officers on that Friday night and on a subsequent morning provided a ground-level view of a unit suffering through a rough patch.
Recently, an internal investigation of transit enforcement officers resulted in the firing of eight workers. Five of them face criminal charges of fabricating evidence and attempting to obstruct justice after allegedly writing fraudulent tickets to cover up time spent surfing the internet, running errands and, in one case, visiting a girlfriend. They are due in court later this month.
They are tasked with helping maintain safer conditions on transit, but their limited numbers have some fellow employees calling them the “rainbow squad,” alleging that they always arrive “after the storm is over.” Downsizing in recent years and the firings last month have brought the number of patrol officers down to 34. A typical Friday night may have only eight officers patrolling, and those on the beat say their hands are often tied by limited authority.
The unit was stripped of their special constable designation in 2011. Amid concerns about a parallel police force, the Toronto Police Services Board had decided the job could be done better by increasing the police presence in the transit system. The number of police officers assigned to transit duty jumped from 30-odd to approximately 80, a police spokesman said. But while transit officers say they have a great working relationship with the police, they note that they can go a whole shift without bumping into one of them. Despite recent bad press, the transit enforcement officers are currently angling to have their special constable status reinstated.
The designation would bring with it a host of advantages. Transit officers would be able to make an arrest based on reasonable grounds – for example, if a person comes forward with a credible story about something that had just happened. As it stands, they have to witness the wrongdoing with their own eyes. As special constables, they could run names through the police computer system. They would be able to handle many minor crimes that they must now call in to police.
Another difference: Mr. Uncao could have brought the serious charge of assaulting a peace officer against a young fare-jumper at Davisville station who threw an elbow at him while trying to escape. In the end, the officer decided to not proceed with a regular assault charge against the young man, who had no record.