Former Metra Police Chief Defends Department

In the wake of a scathing report on Metra's Police Department, the former chief of that department is firing back, insisting he did the best he could with the resources he was given.

"I did my damndest to make that department the best it could be," said former Metra Police Chief James Sanford, in an exclusive interview with NBC 5.

Sanford contends the authors of the report, the Chicago consulting firm Hillard-Heintze, never spoke to him or his top commanders about their concerns.

"No, the only time they talked to me was initially when they came in and were starting the assessment," he said, "and then when they had finished it and completed."

"Yes, there were things in that report that were true that we need to take care of," he said. "But they didn't ask the history of ... how did we get there?"

Sanford, a 32 year veteran of the Metra force who had served as chief since 2006, insisted he did what he could to professionalize the department, but met continued resistance from a recalcitrant Metra Board.

"We weren't a high priority with Metra," he said. "We were a necessary evil!"

"You know, we were called upon when it was necessary, but when we asked for resources, manpower, vehicles, we were continually told no!"

The study's authors said they found especially distressing the fact that so few officers actually rode Metra trains. Some said they had not been on a train, while on duty, in years.

Sanford said he shared those concerns, and wanted to see more officers on trains as well. He said he simply didn't have the manpower.

"The train rides? That's something that was a little difficult to do because of the staffing," he said. "We don't have that many police officers. To put people on trains would eliminate our ability to respond to calls for service."

To do that, he said, the Metra department would have needed at least 50 more officers.

"I would like to have had dedicated train riders," he said. "Officers where that's all they did -- ride trains!"

The Hillard-Heintze report called the Metra Police Department an agency in crisis. Former Secret Service agent Arnette Heintze, one of the authors, suggested the agency had not kept pace with current threats. He said his team found the Metra PD was still focused on protecting the railroad's assets, not its riders.

"An antiquated concept of let's protect the property," Heintze said. "Let's protect the physical assets we have."

The report suggested that was an especially frightening scenario, in an age where terrorists have staged deadly attacks on transit systems in London and Madrid.

"Metra needs to do more to address deficits in areas such as intelligence collection, training, and coordination with critical third party agencies," the report said. "While Metra does have some connections to law enforcement coordination in the greater Chicago area to prevent and detect acts of terror, our assessment revealed that these groups do not readily consider Metra's effort or participation to be as proactive or meaningful as they could be."

Sanford rejected that suggestion, saying he made sure his officers received terrorism training, and that protecting the public, not property, was their job.

"Job one was to go out there and protect our community and our community is the transit community," he said. And while he reminded the public that an open transit system is the most difficult to defend, Sanford insisted, "The system is safe. We could do a lot more things if we had more manpower, but right now, that system is safe!"

The report on the Metra Police Department called for Sanford's replacement. But Sanford said his retirement last week had long been scheduled, and had nothing to do with the report's dim view of his leadership.

"I took great pains at that," he said. "That upset me quite greatly because I grew up in that system. It wasn't the leadership of the police department. It was the leadership where I had to go and ask for resources that said no. And we did what we had to do with the resources that we had."

He did say that his department seemed to rise in stature with the Metra hierarchy, after the death of longtime executive director Phil Pagano. Subsequent Metra leaders, he said, were more receptive to his requests for increased funding.

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