Metro Transit leaders kicked off, with optimism, a two-prong plan to increase safety on light rail in the Twin Cities, while also acknowledging there is work to be done to win back riders.
The new chief of the Metro Transit police said the current laws and code of conduct will be enforced immediately, and temporary teams that include a combination of social workers and community groups will work with people who are homeless as well as those on transit who are struggling with addiction and mental illness.
The high-visibility teams will later be joined by law enforcement to help reduce crime and a sense of insecurity on transit. The plan, pushed this past session by DFLers Rep. Brad Tabke and Sen. Scott Dibble, was approved and funded in the omnibus transportation bill signed last week. It is set to last at least 12 weeks, what Tabke called “an aggressive timeline.”
The new effort is in response to rising crime on light rail and at stations. It is also aimed at increasing ridership levels, which have not fully recovered after the pandemic. Metro Transit reports an increase in crime in the first quarter of 2023 compared to the previous year. Major crimes jumped from 817 incidents to 1,352 this year. Those crimes include drug crimes, which made up 38% of the total.
Less serious crimes including violating no-tresspass orders, liquor use and disorderly conduct jump from 625 incidents last winter to 2,395 in the first three months of 2023.
Metro Transit’s new program to address the problems begins with public outreach events to spread the word about the upcoming campaign. They will be at Target Field station and Lake Street station in Minneapolis, Mall of America in Bloomington, and Central and Union Depot stations in St. Paul.
Once the teams are given time to improve the rider experience, new Transit Rider Investment Program (TRIP) staffers — civilian transit employees who in past versions of the bill were called ambassadors — will be deployed to check for fare payment, help riders navigate the system and summon commissioned officers as needed. Fare enforcement had been the job of transit police who wrote pricey tickets that rarely led to prosecutions. The civilian citations by TRIP agents will be akin to parking tickets.
The agency will also begin contracting with community-based groups like A Mother’s Love and Circle of Discipline who will deploy staff to work directly with people who appear to need social services.
“We have a soft touch,” said Hortense Hollie, the transit project manager for A Mother’s Love. “We will engage them, build community trust over time and we advise them of what services are available.” One technique is to give out bags with water, snacks and toiletries.
Adonis Frazier, a senior program manager and boxing coach with Circle of Discipline, said the program seeks to reach young people before they get into trouble through leadership programs and financial literacy.
“It’s giving the kids an alternative, something different, then just be out here getting into what we call trouble,” Frazier said. “It feels good to be part of this partnership.”
There will be new efforts to clean stations, buses and trains more frequently, and while a code of conduct already exists, the new law requires the council to stiffen the code after receiving public input. One requirement of the legislation is that sleeping on trains will not be a violation.
Metro Transit has been under pressure to deal with crime and perceptions of unsafe conditions. It has deployed homeless action teams for several years to direct people to shelters. The agency has a safety and security plan and has spent $3 million contracting with private security to give extra attention to hot-spots like the Lake Street and Franklin light rail stations in Minneapolis and the Central Station in St. Paul as well as the Brooklyn Center transit center.
But it has asked for three years for the authority to shift fare enforcement to non-commissioned officer staff to free up cops for law enforcement. It was blocked in the GOP-controlled Senate. The DFL trifecta this session cleared the way for the change.
“It’s not just addressing safety, it’s about addressing things like addiction, mental health and so much more, which prevents our customers from enjoying the customer experience they deserve,” said Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle.
Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, said the bottom-line purpose of the effort is to bring riders back to the system.
“What we hope and believe that this will do is increase the number of folks who are riding transit on a day-to-day basis. That’s the way we have the safest transit system is to have more riders,” he said.
Chief Ernest Morales III, who spent much of his career with the New York City Police Department, said Thursday that his goal is to give riders “the experience of a clean ride.”
“Make no mistake about it: We will enforce the code of conduct in an empathic, professional and respectful manner. We will enforce the law. We will be out there providing services for the needy but making it a great experience for the passengers.” Morales said. “When we see a violation taking place, we are going to immediately enforce it.”
But a force budgeted at 171 officers has just 107 on staff, a result of the same struggle to hire cops that most other agencies face. Morales said he hopes to add up to two dozen new officers, many from the current group of community services officers, by the end of summer.