Canada

Vancouver transit police begin packing guns

Vancouver's rapid-transit system has become the first in the country to be patrolled by transit police who carry guns and have full police powers.

Vancouver's rapid-transit system has become the first in the country to be patrolled by transit police who carry guns and have full police powers.

The Greater Vancouver Regional Transit Authority (TransLink) introduced the armed force on Monday to patrol the SkyTrain, Sea Bus and West Coast Express train.

The officers have been given the authority to conduct investigations, enforce outstanding warrants, enforce drug laws and make arrests – even outside transit property.

"The new transit police force will enhance public safety throughout the SkyTrain route on buses, trains and stations and in the neighbourhoods that surround the depots," said B.C. Solicitor General John Les as he unveiled the team.

Vancouver transit officials said it's no longer enough to count on municipal police to keep the system safe.

The new force has 70 officers, for now, who work in shifts of 12 to 16 hours to cover transit terminals throughout the rapid-transit system.

Eventually the force will grow to 91 officers, the vast majority of them retirees drawn from other police forces.

The officers are trained in firearms and their qualifications must match those required by a municipal police force.

Officials defend issuing of guns

The plan to arm the transit police created controversy when it was first announced in March.

But Les defended the move, saying it was necessary because SkyTrain stations in Vancouver have traditionally been magnets for crime and violence. "

"It is about helping to build public confidence and public safety," the solicitor general said. "We want to promote ridership and that can be much more readily accomplished when people actually feel safe."

Toronto's system has different needs, official says

Vancouver's transit police officers are the first to take up arms, but transit safety has become a concern in the country's other big cities as well.

In Montreal and Toronto, where hundreds of thousands of commuters ride the subways every day, authorities rely on a combination of security cameras, police patrols and transit attendants.

"I think Vancouver has different needs," said Rick Ducharme, the chief general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission.

"My understanding is there were issues not only in the stations but just outside the stations and they weren't getting the same response [from police] that we do."

Riders divided over armed force

Reaction from transit users was mixed as the armed force hit the streets.

"I ride the SkyTrain alone at night all the time and I have never not felt safe," one woman, who didn't give her name, told CBC News. "I do not really think there is a need for it."

But another rider, a young man, defended the force. "If it is a deterrent to any potential crime, I do not have a problem with it."