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Met Council chief vows to improve safety on Twin Cities buses, light rail

Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Standing in front of a Green Line train at the Lowertown garage, Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle outlined new and ongoing efforts by the agency to address a rise in crime and misconduct.

The new chair of the Metropolitan Council called a press conference Wednesday not just to announce new initiatives to improve safety on Twin Cities buses and light rail but to send a message to riders — and legislators.

“We have the full attention of Metro Transit and the Met Council on this issue,” Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle said. “We’ve heard the concern and we don’t have all the answers; this is our start. We are absolutely committed to returning safety and a culture of welcome to all of our operations.”

Standing in front of a Green Line train at the Lowertown garage, Zelle outlined new and ongoing efforts by the agency to address a rise in crime and misconduct, as well as the perception that riding Metro Transit is unsafe.

“Mobility is critical for connecting people to their jobs, to health care, to school, to wherever they want to go,” Zelle said. “And public transportation is the lifeblood of our economic prosperity and our inclusive growth.”

Among the initiatives begun last year are increasing transit police hours; using plainclothes officers on trains; creating homelessness action teams; reaching agreement with nonprofits to reserve shelter beds for referrals from Metro Transit; increasing staff on the agency’s “text for safety” program; and purchasing new cameras for trains that can be monitored and used to dispatch police officers.

The agency has also increased cleaning schedules for trains and stations and last year ended 24-hour service on the Green Line, both to allow better cleaning and maintenance and to eliminate hours of service where problems were most likely.

There have been several high-profile violent attacks and murders on Metro Transit trains and buses over the last year.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
There have been several high-profile violent attacks and murders on Metro Transit trains and buses over the last year.
Zelle said the outreach to homeless people who seek shelter on trains and in stations has increased. “Stations are secure and warm but they are not set up to be shelters,” Zelle said. The Met Council has devoted an additional $1 million and sought business and foundation help to increase the availability of both short-term and long-term beds.

The agency this year will set aside $1.8 million to purchase up to 20,000 overtime hours for part-time and full-time police and will borrow officers from other police agencies. It is also supporting legislation to create a transit ambassadors program, part of a House DFL rail safety bill that would employ civilian staff to check fares, report crimes and misconduct as well as try to deescalate confrontations on transit.

“We need to have more eyes and ears on our buses, trains, stations and platforms,” Zelle said 

When he released that plan alongside legislators earlier this month, Zelle said the transit agency needs to “up our game” on rail safety. “We see that safety, the atmosphere of safety, the atmosphere of being comfortable to come in and out of all of our buses and trains is really critical,” Zelle said. “Those who do not feel welcome coming onto the trains deserve to feel that way.”

Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell
There have been several high-profile violent attacks and murders on Metro Transit trains and buses over the last year. Those incidents, and media coverage of them, have helped paint an image of a system that is dangerous to ride. And while agency police have tried to reassure the riding public that crime is still relatively low, the agency’s own statistics  show increases in serious crime on light rail trains and at stations

Compared to January of 2019, Green Line citations increased 69 percent last month. Blue Line citations increased 88 percent year over year. Arrests also are up 63 percent on the Green Line and 86 percent on the Blue Line.

Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell said Wednesday that he has put in a new system for deploying his officers, with more on trains than in squad cars. He also now concentrates officers at hot spots such as Central Station in St. Paul and the Warehouse District and Lake Street in Minneapolis.

“Let it be known — even if you don’t see us — we are watching,” Frizell said.

A political issue?

At the Legislature, there are bills offered from both Republicans and DFLers that seek to respond to both the reality and perception of danger on Metro Transit. 

The DFL bill, House File 3085, leans more on a social services model than a law enforcement model, though it includes elements of both. Fare evasion would be decriminalized and fines reduced. Currently, a ticket for fare evasion issued by a transit police officer comes with a $180 fine and is akin in severity to committing an assault or driving under the influence.

Because that penalty seems too severe, bill sponsor Brad Tabke said only 3 percent of the fines are ever collected. County attorneys don’t feel it worth their time to pursue court action against those who don’t pay, the Shakopee DFLer said.

A Metro Transit code of conduct sign displayed on a Green Line train.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A Metro Transit code of conduct sign displayed on a Green Line train.
The new tickets would be petty misdemeanors, comparable to traffic or parking tickets. And they would be issued primarily by a new corps of transit ambassadors, who would ride trains to enforce fares and help passengers. According to Tabke, they would be trained in de-escalation and how to direct riders in need to social services.

The new ambassadors would be similar to the yellow-shirted Downtown Improvement District staff in Minneapolis who help visitors and act as extra eyes for law enforcement, though a closer comparison might be with a new pilot program on Bay Area Rapid Transit in the San Francisco bay area. 

House Transportation committee chair Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said he thinks fare collections will increase under the new system and make transit safer. “This moves us from a reactive place to a proactive place,” Hornstein said.

Rep. Jon Koznick, a Republican from Lakeville who was briefly the chair of the Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Government, said he wasn’t opposed to the civil citation from fare evasion but said there must also be a stronger deterrence effort by law enforcement. 

“Just having a hall monitor and reducing the fine isn’t going to be a revenue maker to pay for the ambassadors,” Koznick said. “We have a different approach but I’m hopeful that by the end of session we may have some agreement.” 

He also called on the Met Council to have a plan in place soon. “I share the concern that the brand of Metro Transit is getting severely damaged,” he said.

One GOP bill comes from Rep. Paul Torkelson of Hanska. His proposal, House File 3110, would require the Met Council to commission a third-party safety assessment of the transit system. The study, due next February, would cover recent criminal activity, look at ways to reduce fare evasion and make recommendations for change.

An emergency contact sign displayed on a Green Line train.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
An emergency contact sign displayed on a Green Line train.
Torkelson, the GOP lead on the House Transportation Policy and Finance committee, said he rides the Green Line daily during legislative sessions from an apartment in downtown St. Paul to the Capitol. Having ridden rail systems around the world, he said feels most unsafe on the Green Line, and likened the issue of crime on Metro Transit to a school teacher who doesn’t set high standards the first day of school.

“The students get out of hand,” he said. “If you try to reign it in later, you have to go a step above, and (Metro Transit) are not willing to do that.

“You have to have an environment where people feel safe and secure because we want people to use this train,” Torkelson said. “We’ve invested billions. But when my constituents come here from out of the metropolitan area and want to ride the train from Mall of America to the stadium, they should feel safe.”

Torkelson’s comments came after graphic testimony earlier this month before the Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Government that oversees the Met Council. Two Metro Transit rail operators told stories of crime, threats and misconduct on trains, behavior that ranged from drug use and assaults to urination and defecation.

Honey Darling, an operator and executive committee member of the union that represents Metro Transit workers, said operators as well as staff who clean trains and stations have been assaulted and threatened. She said operators often face unsafe conditions when they are required to clear trains of passengers, often without help from transit police. “When we have criminal activity on the train, it goes on all night,” she said. 

Honey Darling
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Honey Darling, an operator and executive committee member of the union that represents Metro Transit workers, said operators as well as staff who clean trains and stations have been assaulted and threatened. State Rep. Paul Torkelson is at right.
Late at night, security guards at the airport and Mall of America won’t let people get off trains: not at all at the mall, and not unless they have bags or airport staff credentials at the airport. 

Also testifying was Jerry Ziegler, who called being a train operator his dream job, though stress from working on trains now leads to anxiety. “I cannot calm down when I get home due to trauma caused on the job,” Ziegler said. “I love trains, I love to do it well, I love the people of the Twin Cities. … Right now we have a dangerous, unsanitary, unsafe, and dirty mode of transit to offer our guests and our citizens.

Jerry Ziegler
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Jerry Ziegler called being a train operator his dream job, though stress from working on trains now leads to stress and fear.
“With the murder two weeks ago, I have to ask myself everyday, am I going home tonight, am I going to HCMC on a gurney for major surgery, or am I going to HCMC in a black body bag?”

Wes Kooistra
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Wes Kooistra
On Wednesday, Wes Kooistra, general manager of Metro Transit, acknowledged issues  with light rail, especially on late-night and end-of-the-line trains and with those who ride at night for shelter and refuse to leave when directed to by operators.

The agency has responded, Kooistra said, with increased police presence at night and at end-of-line shift changes. He also said 150 operator barriers have been installed on buses and have 450 more on order. “We’re taking those issues seriously,” he said. “We take any concern about safety from operators seriously because they’re the backbone of our system.”

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Richard Lentz on 02/13/2020 - 10:50 am.

    OK, I am scared, but should I be? Are the problems only at night? During what hours? When did the murder occur? There isn’t enough information to orient or guide me.

  2. Submitted by Ann Frisch on 02/13/2020 - 11:13 am.

    I recommend that Transit department consult with Nonviolent Peaceforce. It has 250 unarmed civilian protectors in much more dangerous places in the world, not to understate the concerns here. They are effective and well received because they carry no arms and are non partisan.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 02/13/2020 - 12:34 pm.

      Sorry Ann, but a quick internet search reveals that the Peaceforce has been overwhelmingly unsuccessful. Common sense tells you only those empowered to enforce the law can fix this problem.

      We can debate what social programs are needed all day long. But it’s clear those programs should not be administered on public transportation. Light Rail is reaching a tipping point. Riding in the early morning, and evenings is unsafe and I know numerous people that will no longer use it as a means to access entertainment, theater or sporting events.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/13/2020 - 03:06 pm.

        “We can debate what social programs are needed all day long. But it’s clear those programs should not be administered on public transportation.”

        Amen to this. As someone who has stopped riding the train, I am beyond frustrated with those who think excessive fines are the problem here.

        • Submitted by Sam Pingree on 02/14/2020 - 09:35 am.

          Excessive fines are meaningless if only police (who are not always available) can issue them, and if only 3% of the fines are being paid, because courts agree they are excessive. Making the fine more reasonable and able to be issued by more employees will make it a more useful tool for enforcement.

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/14/2020 - 01:39 pm.

            You are really missing the point here. Fare evasion and collection of fines are not the problem. I honestly don’t care if people are fare-dodging to go to work, or school, or anywhere as long as they are behaving themselves. We should be subsidizing legitimate train users for whom the fares are a hardship.

            On my last train ride (maybe ever) I got on the train and everyone was crowded into one end. They were avoiding the smell of the passed out guy at the other end who pooped himself and appeared to have poop smeared all over himself. It was a biohazard.

            I want that guy off the train. I want the people who sprawl out and sleep/pass out on the train off the train. I want the people who urinate and vomit on the seats and floor off the train. I want the people who openly drink alcohol and smoke weed off the train. I would hope there are shelters or services for these people. But if there aren’t, I still want them off the train. That’s not what the train is for. Its not a bed and a toilet.

            So I don’t see transit ambassadors as a solution to this problem. I have been fortunate to not have been the victim of violence or theft, but lots of other people have. Again, are the transit ambassadors going to be able to handle that kind of thing?

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/13/2020 - 12:34 pm.

    The problem with fare evasion is not the lack of revenue. Its that a lot of the people not paying are those making the trains unsafe. And the fact they haven’t paid is the mechanism to get them off the trains.

    The trains have become a homeless shelter. A refuge for drug addicts. People sleep on them all day. Use them as a toilet.

    The answer to this is having a better support system for the homeless. And then instead of writing tickets, removing these people from the train and taking them to a shelter.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/13/2020 - 02:22 pm.

    This is a problem similar to New York City’s in the 1980’s when “fare jumping” on the subway reached record levels. The City’s “broken windows” approach to enforcing the law against this low level of crime has been credited with bringing down the overall crime rate in the City. But I believe this policy or at least whether one of its effects in reducing overall crime has been controversial.

    There needs to be a zero tolerance for “fare jumpers”. The problem is identifying and implementing an enforcement approach which is most effective in reaching this goal.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/13/2020 - 05:52 pm.

      Broken windows? Not really.

      Crime dropped on NYC subways for the same reason it dropped at the same time all around the country: lead was removed from gasoline in the 70’s. This has happened in every country that has removed lead from gas; there is a huge drop in the crime rate about 21 years later.

      Broken windows. Longer prison sentences. Clinton Cops. These were tried in varying degrees around the country. But even though these remedies were tried to different degrees, crime dropped uniformly around the country.

      People don’t like to hear this. Liberals want to believe crime dropped due to social programs, so they can justify more spending on their pet programs. Conservatives want to believe it was due to 3 strikes & your out & longer sentences, so they can spend more on law enforcement. The fact that crime dropped due to the removal of lead from gas doesn’t give anyone an excuse to spend more.

      The drop in Crime in the U.K. was more pronounced than in the U.S. The phase out period in the U.K. was quicker than it was in the U.S.

  5. Submitted by lisa miller on 02/13/2020 - 02:56 pm.

    Any yet they spent how much to expand LRT when they should have been spending money to clean this up? And the route they expanded it to is not one that is even all that high density. Great, now more people will be complaining about LRT in their neighborhood and probably moving out. LRT can be a good thing if they had limited it to high needs areas and recognized it cannot substitute for social services. Many argues for increasing express buses, focusing more on social services and offering the existing LRT more safety measures instead of the SWLRT but the politicians again throw money into their pet projects with little regard for what those in the affected areas think. I would also add many social service agencies and the county do give out free metro passes to low income people to take transit.

    • Submitted by David Miller on 02/16/2020 - 09:50 am.

      I doubt that! If people were moving out and home prices were dropping, I’d be moving near to an LRT line and quit driving in rush hour traffic.

  6. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/13/2020 - 05:54 pm.

    I can’t help but wonder if the decision to not have gates that require proof of payment of fare was wrong. Not because of revenue collection, but to make sure everyone has skin in the game.

  7. Submitted by John Richard on 02/14/2020 - 09:18 am.

    There are serious problems caused by homeless people using the trains as shelters, which need to be addressed by giving the Transit Police the resources needed to help people seeking on the train find safer, more suitable shelter, as Pat Terry suggests above.

    There is a separate issue of crime on trains and buses, and at many stations. Some of the people drinking in public at stations, using drugs on trains and buses, threatening and harrasing other riders may be homeless. Many of these people are most likely not homeless, and need to be treated as the petty criminals they are with whatever legal actions can be used to decrease their impact on public safety.

    We’ll come to better solutions when we stop equating homelessness with criminal behavior. Continuing to do so creates stereotypes that work against real solutions to homelessness, and creates a convenient space for public officials to ignore the serious public safety issues facing certain parts of the Twin Cities, including its transit system, as a matter that needs to be addressed by law enforcement and the prosecution of criminals.

  8. Submitted by larry robertson on 02/14/2020 - 10:10 am.

    This demonstrates why governments run deficits. No one can argue that something needs to be done to improve safety. She they budget $1.8 million. For 20,000 additional hours that officers ride on mass transit. What do you suppose the officers are going to be paid? It’s budgeted at $90/ hour. Ridiculous.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/14/2020 - 05:31 pm.

      Or, maybe, governments run deficits because we spend far too much of our treasure on a bloated Aid For Dependent Corporations program which is disguised as a military budget while the amazon guy that drop boxes at your front door pays more in taxes than his employer.

  9. Submitted by Barry Peterson on 02/15/2020 - 08:37 pm.

    I stopped taking trains and buses alone in early 2019. The behavioral problems on buses and trains run the gambit from people yelling at others who appear to be glancing at them for too long to people with poor hygiene smelling up transit.

    I went to work one evening for a meeting of others in the insurance industry. I took both the Green Line from Minneapolis to the A Line down Snelling Avenue to County Road B West. I moved from my seat twice as the smell of poop filtered into my nose. It landed on my suit and overcoat.

    Later in the week, I got a call from the office to indicate that someone in the group had complained of my odor. They asked me to not return if I had problems with transit rides creating such filth and such an offensive odor. I was both embarrassed and annoyed.

    I hate taking the train given the foul manner in which many youth from all backgrounds shout obscenities and put their feet on the chairs in the middle of rain storms and when the snow has melted onto their footwear. Others appear to have been high or drunk and misbehave.

    I would like all seats in sections that are not used as benches to be pointed in one direction so that inconsiderate people cannot put their feet up on the seats, get them wet and gritty from rain and from media placed on the sidewalks to melt the snow and ice.

    I have been taking public transit in this nation and in other nations since I lived in south Minneapolis in the 1970’s and took “Big Red” (the name my classmates gave to the old red MTC buses) to De La Salle High School on Nicollet Island. I have never owned a vehicle, and believe it is time that I purchase one, as my income is hurt by the fact that I have mostly chosen MetroTransit as the way I get around — until that poop-laden evening last year, after which I began to use UBER and LYFT.

    As a kid, I learned that one of my dad’s colleagues was both the mayor of a local city and a MTC commissioner. A friend of mine, who will retire this coming December, was a Metropolitan Council commissioner years ago. As such, I have made an effort to contact MetroTransit Customer Service when problems arise.

    I am also happy that Eddie Frizell is the new MetroTransit chief of police. Eddie is a wonderful man who has a deep commitment to both law enforcement and dignifying people; he is resourceful and accountable. My experience with him leads me to believe that if there is something that can be done that he has the power to move, it will be done.

    However, don’t expect to see me on public transit in this community any time soon. The social culture here is not strong enough to teach and enforce good behavior in public by youth and many people of modest means.

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