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Employees say just about every method of payment has been compromised, including the sort of day-pass displayed here by Transit enforcement officer Bill Perivolaris.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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.

"Sometimes you just gotta take one," he explained, exercising the discretion at the heart of the job. "We're not here to arrest everyone. Hopefully he'll learn."

The officers say the respect of the public is crucial to the job, and the arrests of their colleagues hit them hard. But they were reassured by signs that transit riders have not turned on them.

"Now it's up to each one of them to individually go out there and, in their contact with the public, to re-sell and to make sure that the public hasn't lost trust in us," Deputy Chief Fergie Reynolds, the former police officer who heads up the unit, said in an interview. "And I don't think they have."

He hopes the arrests and firings will not have an effect on the Toronto Police Services Board's decision whether to grant special constable status again.

"I think that the [internal] investigation, in and of itself, demonstrated that we're very serious about making sure that our people have the utmost of integrity when they go out to protect our customers and our employees," Deputy Chief Reynolds said. "We simply will not stand for anybody who doesn't subscribe to our core values and our code of ethics and our mission statement. And if they choose to engage in wrongful behaviour, then we're going to terminate them."

Police Services Board Chair Alok Mukherjee said that the firings would have no impact "at all" on a request for special constable status. But he said this week that the TTC would have to make a serious business case explaining why they could do a better job than the police. There have been meetings between Police Chief Bill Blair and TTC chief executive officer Andy Byford transit spokesman Brad Ross characterized as positive, and the TTC expects the issue to come to the board in the coming months.

Toronto's transit system is relatively small and fairly safe, and the job sometimes shows officers the better side of humanity.

Between trains on a busy Wednesday morning at Bloor station, TTC officer Nicole Hylton-Ehlers describes a stranger offering a $20 bill so that a hurt senior could take a taxi home from the hospital.

But officers also struggle with the selfishness and narrow-mindedness of others. Trevor Timbrell, her partner on that recent shift, remembers giving CPR to a passenger and being tapped on the back by someone impatient to get on his way.

And they regularly encounter much more serious problems.

This past week, transit and police officers responded to reports of an aggressive panhandler who threatened to kill a janitor and collector. The man pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 45 days in prison.

TTC enforcement officers say that calls run the gamut from voyeurism to open liquor, from fighting to public fornication.

Their teams are often first to the scene of suicides, helping document the ghastly result. On other occasions, they are able to intervene in time. Mr. Perivolaris tells the story of a young man who had given up after his girlfriend committed suicide. He wanted to follow suit the next day, convinced no one cared about him, until the officer tracked down his family in the suburbs and reunited them.

Officers deal with the homeless and mentally ill. They respond to a few hundred thefts annually, warning that cellphone and MP3 players are particular targets for people who grab them and then jump out closing doors. And among the rush-hour mob scenes, they help keep commuters calm and moving smoothly.

"We're just here to enforce all the little rules that let people get along," Ms. Hylton-Ehler said.

When they're not responding to calls, officers say they spend the bulk of their time stopping fare evasion.

They can choose from a host of penalties. Fare-jumpers face fines starting at $65 and climbing to hundreds of dollars. The city gets this money and none of it flows back directly to the TTC or its enforcement unit, which has an annual budget of about $5-million. But the officers hope there will be a deterrent effect.

"We're here to protect the commission's assets," Mr. Perivolaris explained. "But we do everything else too. Public safety is an asset."

On this late evening at Spadina station, he is talking to the sharply dressed fare-jumper, who started crying after he was nabbed, insisting he didn't make much money and should be praised for not driving his car.

"I have to fine you," Mr. Perivolaris explained.

He asked for identification and, when a health card was proffered, gently told the man to put it away. The officer gave the man the minimum fine, explaining later that he had been "extremely" remorseful. He was sent on his way, sniffling, with a fist-bump.