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Why Minnesota lawmakers’ plan to enlist social workers to help Metro Transit woes could be a challenge

Officials from Hennepin and Ramsey counties shared jurisdictional, legal and staffing concerns about the proposed Transit Safety Intervention Project.

Green Line train at the Minnesota State Capitol
In his budget update last week, Gov. Tim Walz requested $11.45 million for a transit safety package for the Met Council.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

 A legislative plan to launch a high-profile campaign to rid light rail trains of crime and other unsafe conditions requires a combination of state, local and non-profit police and social services agencies.

But what if all of those agencies are not willing — or able — to take part? Commissioners from both Ramsey and Hennepin counties are telling lawmakers that they don’t think they can divert their social services staff from their current duties. Ramsey County Commissioner Rena Moran, a former House member who was chair of the House Ways and Means Committee last session, told the committee it will be difficult for the county to help. 

State Rep. Rena Moran
Ramsey County Commissioner Rena Moran
“We support the overarching goal of the bill and that is to protect the investment that we have made in the transit system and help the people who are riding the light rail,” Moran said. But the issues are bigger and a solution requires responses to what she termed the homeless crisis and the mental health crisis and the lingering impacts of COVID-19 on the workforce and families.

Here’s how the Transit Safety Intervention Project under House File 2045 would work: It would begin with a three-week effort using mental illness professionals and social workers to work with people on trains and platforms who need services. That would be followed by a nine-week effort that would add police agencies to enforce a new code of conduct for passengers.

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Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, envisions teams using state and local police and social workers along with nonprofit mental illness and homelessness advocates to “reset the culture” of expectations of train users. (A bill summary is here.)

But Moran also raised several concerns about relying on county workers for the intervention.

State Rep. Brad Tabke
“We don’t operate the system, and there are a lot of jurisdictional, legal and staffing issues with using county personnel,” Moran said. “We are already short staffed at Ramsey County with social service workers.” Adding social workers who can do this work take months “and moving staff off their current assignment is a decision we take very seriously, as well.”

She proposed instead contracting with community organizations for the types of social service providers envisioned in Tabke’s bill.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Lunde shared Moran’s concerns. In an interview Friday, he said the county is budgeted to hire 12 social workers to embed with police agencies in Minneapolis and suburban cities and thinks it will take nine months to hire them. The county has more than 900 social workers in its budget but relatively few are trained to do the type of field work required by the Transit Safety Intervention Project.

Any social worker is in high demand, but the competition for those who are able and willing to work in the field in unpredictable and stressful situations is even tighter. He said the county has street-to-housing teams that might talk to people at a transit platform that appear to be experiencing homelessness. But the next day they might be at an encampment in Brooklyn Center.

photo of candidate
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Lunde
“We think the fastest way for them to get people is to work with community-based organizations,” Lunde said. “I don’t want to act like we don’t care. We do. If we have to give them staff, we lose our flexibility.”

Tabke said he has heard the concerns of the counties but said he is still asking for cooperation for a relatively short amount of time. 

“There is obviously a shortage of staff across the board, and that is part of how we got to this problem, he said. “But we need to continue to work together and the counties have to be part of the solution.

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“This is an interjurisdictional problem, and that’s why we have so many issues on the trains because people are pointing fingers in other directions and often saying this is someone else’s issue and not mine,” he said. “What this program will do is bring everybody together to talk about whose responsibility is whose and how we get the right  pieces in place to make sure we are solving this problem.”

The program would run for a few months through early summer to make sure the Blue Line and Green Line are safe and ready to be transitioned into the Transit Rider Investment Program (TRIP). Staffing sizes would shift as people become available. NAMI has committed its mental health crisis team but not all the time. DHS also has a crisis team that would be called upon.

The project leader would make requests, such as using Bloomington police where and when it makes sense, airport security when it makes sense. It could include private security companies such as those patrolling high-problem stations like Lake Street in Minneapolis.

“The goal is to have enhanced presence on the trains,” Tabke said. “I expect that everyone understands and recognizes this is a problem and will respond to the best of their abilities.”

House File 1322 is the second part of the safety response. Once the intervention campaign winds down in early summer, so-called TRIP personnel would be added. These civilian staff would be on trains and buses and at stations to enforce fares, provide help to riders, inform riders of code violations and summon police if needed. The bill creates a new administrative citation, similar to a parking ticket, for fare evasion. Current law requires commissioned police to issue such tickets but because the high-priced ticket was rarely enforced by county attorneys, they were rarely issued.

State Sen. Scott Dibble
State Sen. Scott Dibble
The bill does call for police-issued misdemeanor citations for smoking, drinking alcohol, damaging vehicles or stations. It also authorizes police to remove passengers from trains and stations for violations.

Senate Transportation Committee Chair Scott Dibble is sponsoring both bills in the Senate — Senate File 2506 on transit intervention and Senate File 1049 on the TRIP program. Last week he merged the two into SF1049.

Dibble told his committee that he is often uncomfortable riding the light rail, due to smoke and litter and treatment he thinks he receives because he is a gay man.

“But the situation for other people is far worse,” he said, “rising to levels of violence of the worst sort.” The Central Station in downtown St. Paul and the Uptown Station in Minneapolis have both been closed because of what he termed intolerable conditions.

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In his budget update last week, Gov. Tim Walz requested $11.45 million for a transit safety package for the Met Council.

“Minnesotans’ tolerance is very, very low on violence and you’ve seen an increase in areas, including transit,” Walz said about the request. “People getting to their jobs is dependent on these transit corridors. We need to make sure they are safe.”

In addition to the $2 million for the intervention project, it would provide $7.9 million to enclose three high-crime platforms with enclosures that will make it harder to enter them from behind and $850,000 for 10 mobile cameras to supplement cameras at platforms and on vehicles.

Ernest Morales III
Ernest Morales III
Last week, Metro Transit’s new police chief, Ernest Morales III, appeared before the Senate Transportation Committee and told members he has been riding the light rail lines and buses since he has been in the state from New York where he worked for the police department for 30 years.

“I see what seems to be problematic and unpleasant to the everyday commuter,” he said. “While I felt uncomfortable, I didn’t necessarily feel threatened. However, perception is very important particularly when you are a commuter experiencing the ride.”

He said he went to Lake Street station to see the issues first hand.

Morales also said he hopes to rebuild the police force through retention and recruitment efforts and continue to work with other police departments and hiring of private security agencies.

“I want to remind the committee that we’re a small footprint in these communities that are experiencing larger problems,” Morales said. That is why having partnerships with the other agencies that trains and buses pass through is important.

Lunde was asked last week what Hennepin County would do if his concerns about using county social workers were not addressed in the bill.

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“We’ll smile, put on our big-boy pants and try to work it out,” Lunde said. “We want it to be safe. We know people aren’t riding it because they don’t feel safe. It’s a very complicated problem and we know we’re part of the solution.”