Metro Transit police officers are asking light rail riders to show their tickets. They’re directing them to ticket vending machines. But writing citations? Nope.
“Instead of citing them right now, we’re taking an educational approach and reminding people of their responsibility to pay their fares,” Metro Transit police chief Ernest Morales III told the Met Council’s committee of the whole Wednesday.
“We see it more just at this point to educate them to pay their $2.50 than fining them $180,” he said.
And checking fares will soon be a task of the past for Metro Transit police, the result of legislation passed in May. New civilian employees — sometimes called ambassadors — will check fares, issue tickets with far smaller fines, help customers navigate the system and help connect troubled riders with social services. They can also summon cops.
And rather than tickets being for a misdemeanor punishable with fines of $180, the new citations will be akin to parking tickets with fines ranging from $35 for first offenses up to $100 for repeat offenses.
Just not yet. During Wednesday’s report to the Met Council, Metro Transit said that while staff is working on the new system, it is not ready yet. Not until January will the first group of 22 TRIP personnel — the preferred name by legislative sponsors to ambassadors that stands for Transit Rider Investment Program — be on duty.
“Twenty-two will get us started and then continue to grow the program as we evaluate it and see what the need is going to look like,” Leah Palmer, interim TRIP manager, told the council.
In the meantime, police officers are checking fares as part of a campaign to be more present on platforms and vehicles. Last month, there were 30,000 regular fare enforcement contacts on the Blue Line and 15,000 on the Green Line. Those totals don’t include checks during events like Taylor Swift.
“We feel this is an important exercise moving forward and we hope that later on when we have TRIP personnel coming in that they will assist us with this responsibility and take it away from police officers so they can focus on crime enforcement,” Morales said during a quarterly safety update. While his officers can still write administrative citations, just as city police can write parking tickets, the chore will primarily fall on non-sworn personnel wearing polo shirts rather than uniforms. There may be a transition period, however, when police officers are writing the new citations because the civilian TRIP personnel have not been deployed.
“Our hope is we can shift it to our non-sworn personnel so our police officers can focus on other things,” said Lesley Kandaras, general manager of Metro Transit.
Fare enforcement had dropped off significantly before Morales took the job of top transit cop earlier this year — partly as a result of the pandemic and partly because the criminal citations issued were mostly ignored by county attorneys. Very few of the riders who were ticketed — estimated by the Met Council as 3% — ever paid a fine because it was seen as too harsh and not worth the time for overworked prosecutors. But earlier attempts by the Met Council to move to an administrative citation akin to a parking ticket were blocked by some Republicans in the Legislature who considered it soft on crime.
That changed with the DFL trifecta this past session. A drive that includes a short-term blitz to address crime and social services needs on the light-rail system and a longer-term move to supplement police with transit ambassadors were included in the bill. It is part of a more-comprehensive campaign to “change the culture” of riding on transit, led by Shakopee DFL Rep. Brad Tabke.
Starting June 1, Metro Transit began a multi-jurisdictional effort to first engage with people needing mental health, housing and substance abuse interventions and then the deployment of a combination of police and social services teams. Community groups, including violence intervenors, are being selected as part of the effort.
The high-profile intervention is in its ninth week and is about halfway through the campaign. Metro Transit will continue to work with other police agencies that the trains pass through, including with formal joint partnership agreements, Morales said.
While the TRIP personnel were meant to follow the intense intervention to help maintain the safety gains, they won’t be in place until winter, Kandaras told the council. Part of that is bureaucratic — reaching agreement with the transit union, posting and adopting rules and resolutions, hiring and training people for what is a new and challenging position. But part is meeting the demands of the legislation that detailed how the agency would set up the program including meeting with riders and community groups, creating a third-person appeals process and creating non-financial ways to resolve fines.
“We had to work through the protocols and mechanisms first,” said Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle. The agency wants the tickets to be more affordable but what it prefers is that they pay their fares.
The agency must also recraft an existing code of conduct, something else that requires public outreach as well as taking advice for train and bus operators and other employees.
The transportation budget also requires Metro Transit to set standards for cleaning and repairing vehicles and stations and report back on how it has implemented those standards.
Morales told the Met Council Wednesday that crime numbers continue to be troubling but are improving. This comes despite a nagging shortage of officers, an issue facing all law enforcement departments. He has a budget for 171 officers but only has 107 on the force.
Still, he said he has imposed new tactics including what he called focused enforcement.
“We’ve been identifying those crime areas, getting the officers out of their cars and onto the LRT trains and buses so they can make eye contact with our communities and make them feel safe and comfortable to return,” he said. Officers ride trains, step off at stations and make visual contact with passengers and others on the platforms and then ride to the next station.
The agency also uses the extensive camera system on vehicles and platforms to alert officers to trouble spots.
“When we talk about customer experience, we’re talking about perception. Regardless of the success that we’re having with a decrease in crime, the perception and the experience is what’s most important. We’ve been focusing on getting our uniformed officers out and visible and making contact with customers.”
The agency is also supplementing a short-staffed police department by contracting with private security services. The first deployment was at the Lake Street/Midtown and Franklin stations. The agency will expand private security to the I-35W & Lake Street BRT station, the Chicago-Lake Transit Center, the Uptown Transit Center, the Brooklyn Center Transit Center and the St. Paul Central Station stair tower.
“It was one of our most problematic stations and now one of our model stations,” he said of Lake Street. Saturday, Metro Transit will reopen a stair and elevator tower at the station that was closed to combat crime there and to allow for a renovation of the escalator and elevator. The tower at the Central Station in St. Paul remains closed as does the Uptown Transit Center.
Morales said the decline in reported crimes from May to June was encouraging “but it would be naive for me to say that this wasn’t seasonal. We realize come October, we’re going to have a challenge when it starts to get cold and people start returning to the system. We feel we’ll have a handle on it and continue to make strides moving forward.”