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Top concerns for Metro Transit police-chief finalists: homelessness, diversity

Minneapolis police inspector Eddie Frizell and Metro Transit interim chief A.J. Olson are vying for the position.

Minneapolis police inspector Eddie Frizell and Metro Transit’s interim chief, A.J. Olson, speaking to members of the public Thursday night.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

Two law-enforcement officers who are finalists to lead one of the state’s fastest-growing police agencies the Metro Transit Police Department — made their first public pitches for the job Thursday evening, giving speeches that highlighted how they’d approach some of the agency’s biggest issues: fare evasion, homelessness and diversity among officers.

The finalists are Minneapolis police inspector Eddie Frizell and Metro Transit’s interim chief, A.J. Olson, who took the helm on a temporary basis in January, when Gov. Tim Walz appointed former Metro Transit Chief John Harrington to lead the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Leaders of the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit, chose Frizell and Olson from a pool of 33 applicants for Metro Transit police chief. The new chief will be paid between $150,000 and $165,000 annually.

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The next chief will lead a department that provides law-enforcement across almost 130 bus routes, two light-rail lines and commuter rail in the Twin Cities metro, and oversee 139 full-time and 54 part-time sworn officers. The hiring comes at a critical point for the police agency, as new bus and light rail lines are expanding the scope of officers’ duties and the number of homeless people using trains to sleep at night is on the rise.

Beyond policing existing transit lines and stations, the new leader will have to develop security plans for the under-construction Southwest light rail, as well as the planned Bottineau light-rail line linking Minneapolis and northwestern suburbs and the Orange Line BRT between Minneapolis and Burnsville, among other future bus rapid transit lines.

Different experiences

The two finalists come at the job with very different experiences in policing. Born and raised in eastern Montana, Olson began his law-enforcement career in 1981 as a sheriff’s deputy serving that state’s Richland County, an area with a population of less than 10,000 people that borders North Dakota. In 1984, he transferred to the police department of Sidney, Montana, where he served as a sergeant for 21 years. He joined Metro Transit’s police force in 2005, first as an officer who patrolled light rail before quickly rising through the department’s ranks. He was named deputy chief in 2007, and also served as interim chief in 2012, before Harrington took over.

Minneapolis police inspector Eddie Frizell
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Minneapolis police inspector Eddie Frizell
Throughout his time at Metro Transit, Olson says he has proven himself a strong leader who was responsible for coordinating the agency’s response to several high-profile events, including the I-35W bridge collapse in 2007; protests at the Republican National Convention in 2008; the Major League Baseball All Star Game in 2014; and the NFL’s Super Bowl LII in 2018.

Frizell is originally from Waterloo, Iowa. After graduating from the University of Iowa, he joined the Iowa National Guard, beginning a military career that would see him deployed to Bosnia, Iraq and Kuwait. In 1993, he joined the Minneapolis Police Department, first serving as a mounted patrol officer, then as a SWAT negotiator and internal-affairs investigator. In 2010, he became MPD’s fifth precinct inspector, overseeing officers patrolling southwest Minneapolis. In 2014, former Chief Janeé Harteau promoted him to the agency-wide position of deputy chief of patrol.

The relationship between Frizell and Harteau changed over his decision to launch a campaign for Hennepin County sheriff against incumbent Rich Stanek, however. Frizell took a break from his MPD duties to campaign, and after losing the election asked to return to the department. When he did, Harteau demoted him to lieutenant, and he sued, claiming retaliation. A judge later dismissed the suit, ruling that Harteau hadn’t violated Frizell’s rights by changing her command staff. When Harteau was ousted from her job, though, her successor, Chief Medaria Arradondo, reinstated Frizell to his current job as inspector of the First Precinct, which covers downtown, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus. Frizell was in the running to be St. Paul police chief in 2016, as well as one of three finalists to lead the Seattle Police Department last year.

Addressing homelessness

The next Metro Transit chief will succeed Harrington, who fans say improved the department’s efforts to build relationships with riders and diversified the force.

The Metro Transit police department now claims to be the most diverse police department in the state. Of the incoming officers in 2017, more than 50 percent were women and people of color, and half of them were bilingual, according to the transit agency.

Those achievements were at the forefront of Thursday’s forum between the finalists at the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis, where Frizell and Olson answered questions for an hour and a half in front of a crowd of Met Council members, Metro Transit leaders and community members.

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“Having an organization that reflects the community you serve is one of the … first steps in demonstrating that you’re interested in equity in the community,” Olson said. “One of my goals is to make sure that that never slips.”

Harrington’s successor will inherit another initiative: helping the hundreds of people per night who ride Metro Transit’s Minneapolis-St. Paul Green Line to sleep. In January, volunteers with the Minneapolis nonprofit St. Stephen’s counted 603 homeless people in Hennepin County — 431 of whom were using buses, light-rail trains or transit stations for shelter. That’s an increase from about 260 people found in a similar one-night count in 2018.

“Homelessness is not a crime, so if you get to that mode that police are the only ones attempting to act with these livability situations … you’re asking for issues,” Frizell said Thursday, emphasizing the importance of collaborating with nonprofits and mental-health professionals in responses to people in crisis or other vulnerable residents. “By collaborating with these other elements … you don’t get that same perception of those that would say … ‘You’re profiling,’ some of these other things.”

Under Harrington’s leadership, the department in 2018 established a dedicated group of officers, known as the Homeless Action Team, in response to the rising population of homeless people using trains as shelter.

Metro Transit interim chief A.J. Olson
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Metro Transit interim chief A.J. Olson
For many of those people, sleeping on a well-lit train with others was a safer option than sleeping alone under bridges or on sidewalks. Some also avoided other types of emergency shelter due to fears over thefts or assaults.

Metro Transit police’s team eventually started using two buses to drive people to emergency shelters around the metro; a facility in Ramsey County promised to reserve space only for those brought in by the transit police team. The leader of the team, Lt. Mario Ruberto, has said they’ve made positive strides in earning trust among homeless riders since the initiative began.

In April, Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra led another overnight survey with a different goal: to quantify how many people were using Green Line trains between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. to get around, rather than as a place to sleep. He used the surveys to support a move to close the line between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. on weekdays for maintenance work, a change that will take effect in August. (The Blue Line — which south runs between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America — is already closed during those hours.)

“There’s not just people who are homeless who are using transit that time of night; there are people on there that take advantage of vulnerable people. The people who use transit as shelter are very vulnerable,” Kooistra said in an interview this spring.

Chris Knutson, of St. Stephen’s Human Services, is among people who ride the trains routinely to talk to homeless riders. He said Metro Transit police generally seem to be responding to the homeless people on trains humanely, and he hasn’t heard of many complaints from passengers about the officers. “It’s sort of become the de facto, like, ‘This is a safe place to be. I’m not going to get hassled by the police, and I can be here for the night.’” he said. “They’ve (Metro Transit) made the best out of the situation, but that’s not to say it’s an acceptable situation.”

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Both Olson and Frizell on Thursday said they would continue the culture in the department that focuses on building relationships with riders, rather than traditional policing methods that often use fear-based tactics to enforce the law. The candidates  said they want to ensure officers enough time to be out and about in the community and be able to respond to situations with politeness and patience. Frizell, for example, said he tells officers to approach people on the street like they are relatives on, perhaps, one of their worst days.

To build public trust, the candidates both said they are interested in making Metro Transit incident data available online, similar to the Minneapolis Police Department’s online crime dashboard. “Sometimes, we’re a little bit hesitant to admit that there’s crime on the transit system,” Olson said. “We owe it to our public, we owe it to our community to let them know what’s going on.”

Crime trends

Last year, Metro Transit police documented 6,256 crimes on transit or Metro Transit property, including three sexual assaults and hundreds of cases of vandalism, theft and passengers causing a disturbance or illegally using drugs, according to data provided by the transit agency. The data show similar trends in 2016 and 2017.

“When a crime happens on a bus that has 80 or 90 people on it, one person might be the victim officially from the crime, but the other 85 people feel like they were maybe victimized too, and they don’t feel safe,” Olson said. “One of the better ways to do away with crime and disorder is the presence of the police officers there, engaging the public.”

Of all types of incidents in recent years, though, officers dedicated the most attention to people committing fraud by evading transit fares, which has been on the decline in recent years, as Olson highlighted Thursday (going from more than 2,200 incidents in 2016 to 674 last year, the data show). He said that is a result of the system’s steps to decriminalize the offense, since someone who does not pay a fare — just once — could face a $180 citation and a misdemeanor on their criminal record, if they’re caught.

“Transit police aren’t very invested in writing people citations for that,” Olson said. “They’re giving warnings, and they’ll write citations when it’s appropriate, but many times they’re just asking people to leave their vehicle and pay their fare”

Unlike city and county law-enforcement agencies, the Metro Transit police department does not have an in-house charging attorney, which means it passes its investigations to attorney’s offices elsewhere for charging decisions. The agency also hands off big, high-profile investigations to bigger police departments in the area.

Thursday marked the finalists’ third interview in the hiring process — the first two were not open to the public and led by officials including Kooistra and Met Council regional administrator Meredith Vadis, to whom Kooistra answers. Under Minnesota statute, the regional administrator has final say on the chief position, and she will announce that decision within the next month, according to a spokeswoman for the council.

“This organization is poised for greatness; it’s ready to expand,” Frizell said. “What we see now is a pretty dog-on good police department. Day-to-day operations? They’re working fine. However, in this rapidly-evolving, 21-st century policing, you’re going to have to have somebody at the helm that can take it to the next level.”