MARTA cops under scrutiny after shooting death

MARTA riders are questioning whether the transit system's police force has the proper training to protect them after a MARTA officer killed a teenager in a confrontation.

MARTA says its officers undergo the same training as other Fulton County police officers, including when to use deadly force. Additionally, MARTA officers must complete anti-terrorism training.

Still, riders are questioning the judgment of a MARTA officer who shot and killed 19-year-old Jontavious Stafford on Oct. 15, The officer, 31-year-old Robert Waldo, was responding to a fight and a gunshot near the Vine City MARTA rail station

Stafford's brother said he was unarmed and surrendering. MARTA officials said witnesses saw Stafford with a weapon. ButMARTA has not said whether a weapon was recovered -- which many in the public see as evidence the teen didn't have a gun.

"I don't know why that officer did what he did -- I think he was just scared," said West End's Camillya Edwards, 34, who was riding the Green Line Thursday. "I just don't feel safe on MARTA. You can't feel safe with some of the people who are around and you can't feel safe with the people who are suppose to protect you."

Others noted that they seldom see officers patrolling trains or transit platforms. Instead, the most common image drawn by riders was of a covey of kibitzing cops at the Five Points station acting as a deterrent force against fare dodgers.

"They're usually just standing around the turnstiles talking," said Dre Lewis, 23 of Dunwoody.

But experts who are familiar with the agency say that perspective, while widely held, is unfair. MARTA police officers not only get the same basic training as any other certified police officer but many of them also undergo extensive training targeted toward their specialized area of public safety, said Greg Hull, a security expert with the America Public Transportation Association.

MARTA cops have to have be skilled at public relations and able to respond to obnoxious patrons and the revenue-draining fare dodger as well as run-of-the-mill thugs and potential terrorists, Hull said. He noted that transit agencies worldwide are common targets for terrorist attack, which requires MARTA cops to have to more training in detecting threats.

“I think policing in a transit environment is actually more difficult," Hull said. "The police officers have to be attentive to serious crimes as officers in the typical municipal environment but they also have to be very attentive to those anti-social behaviors that could cause an elderly person to feel uncomfortable.”

All MARTA officers get the same training as other police officers in Fulton County, said Capt. David Hindman, the assistant director of the Fulton County Public Safety Training Center. That training includes not only firearm training in accuracy -- which includes putting the officer in stressful situations while firing -- but also in mandatory judgment training in determining when to fire.

“We actually put them in front of a machine that will test their ability to either react or not react," Hindman said. “We just don’t put a gun in somebody's hand and say,' Go play police.' We put them through quite a bit of training.”

Waldo would have gone through that training two years ago when he joined MARTA in 2009. His personnel file shows he spent four years in the Marines, including two tours in Iraq, before mustering out with an honorable discharge. He got good grades during his two years at Brewton-Parker College, according to his personnel file. He received good performance reviews and was earning $45,000 after only two years on the job according to his last evaluation in May. The salary -- good for an almost-rookie police officer -- indicates MARTA can compete with any metro department for top officers.

Lou Arcangeli, a former deputy chief with the Atlanta Police Department who helped train MARTA supervisors, said that unlike most departments the transit agency 's jurisdiction is throughout two counties, which requires it to backup a multitude of other police agencies.

He noted that the transit department tracked crime statistics and concentrated its forces to combat hot spots, crime trends and to focus on entertainment and sporting events. Crime statistics show a steady drop for the last decade.

"It is not like a system that is like Mayberry's because it is a police department that is really on its numbers," Arcangeli said. "It is a very rigorous planning."

LaTorya Thompson, 21, of Stone Mountain, said she has seen a major change in the effectiveness of the police since she started riding MARTA more than a decade ago. In her view, transit officers had restored order in the stations and quickly put a lid on trouble.

"In 2003 and 2004, you had a lot of hoodlums hanging around and jumping over turnstiles, but not now," she said. "MARTA Police will lock you up quicker than anybody else does."