Police Chief Resisting Policing Reforms

VIA Transit police chief, Mark Witherell, under fire for aggressive officers and lack of transparency
Chief Mark Witherell – KSAT

Transit Police Out of Control

(TX) – The biggest law enforcement agencies in the Bexar County/San Antonio area are the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and the San Antonio Police Department. There is another agency that no one really thinks about. It’s the VIA Metropolitan Transit Police Department. They’re the bus police. This agency has flown beneath the radar until just recently. Over the last 13 months, they have had incidents that have attracted attention.

The Express News appears to have been the first to turn their investigative abilities on the agency. They looked into the ticketing practices of the VIA Transit police officers.

VIA’s Police Department is tasked with protecting public transit, but it has the authority to patrol anywhere in Bexar County. An analysis of its citations found that at least 70 percent of the 3,470 tickets VIA police wrote between 2016 and 2020 were for traffic or parking violations.

Citations have increased even as annual bus ridership has fallen by almost 14 million since it peaked in 2012. At the same time, the VIA Police Department has grown from 31 positions in 2012 to 59 this year, and its budget has more than doubled from $2.6 million in 2012 to $6.8 million in 2020.

The Transit Police are peace officers, but their job is primarily to protect public transit. Their actions are a desperate bid to be important like the big agencies. And with that desperation comes abuse.

Claims of Harassment and Intimidation

80% of bus riders are minorities. There have been complaints of aggression, harassment, and intimidation by Transit police.  Officers have refused to identify themselves when asked. In one case an officer responded with, “You don’t need to know who we are.” And it’s not just the bus riders. Since the officers keep stepping outside of their defined roll, their aggression is being turned on people during traffic stops.

VIA Transit also has unarmed guards who are not police officers. Those guards have been accused of making up rules and using those fake rules to harass citizens waiting for the bus. They have also been accused of trying to get homeless people to fight each other and not intervening when they did see a fight.

Agency’s Secrecy Hiding Police Misconduct?

But it’s the bigger issues that have really put the Transit police in the spotlight. In the last 13 months, they have had two in-custody deaths. One incident was a shooting. The other was a woman either on drugs or mentally ill, who got away from the officer and ran into traffic. She was killed by an oncoming car. In addition, there was a crash involving a VIA bus and surveillance video that captured a shooting by an officer from another agency.

VIA Transit Police challenged all the open records requests with at least one of their claims being they don’t have the equipment to make redactions. KSAT was able to get an incident report on the shooting, almost a month after the incident. According to KSAT, “The four-page report includes no details about why officers felt compelled to shoot Bishop.”

Police Chief Feels Meeting Minimum Requirements is Enough

Mark Witherell is the VIA Transit police chief. KSAT reached out to him for their article. He was asked if “the agency will not create a critical incident video release policy or outright ban the use of chokeholds.” His response was:

“The department doesn’t have a plan to create or change any future policies without the need to change them or without the direction from our accrediting body or our governing body.” 

Also in the article:

“There are times that officers have to use deadly force that is not a weapon, and that’s what the state law allows for, and that’s what our guidance from Texas Police Chiefs (Association) allows for as well.”

In other words, he is satisfied with meeting the bare minimum requirements. I call an employee who does the bare minimum, mediocre.

VIA Transit Police are a Detriment to Policing

Chief Witherell tried to make it sound like what they are doing is good for the San Antonio Police Department. It is not. SAPD may have its issues, but they do have better policies in place. The abusive encounters by the Transit police reflect on SAPD. Citizens aren’t very familiar with the Transit police and don’t know if they have authority to stop anyone. SAPD does not need the negative perception the Transit police cause. SAPD can do its job. They don’t need, and probably don’t want, the “help” of the Transit police.

Someone needs to do something about this rogue agency.

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