Metro Transit officials promised last summer to hire more police and deploy dozens of community service officers to help those in need and avoid trouble on the system’s buses and trains.
These enhanced efforts to ensure transit safety were expected to materialize by July, alongside the return of subway residents to their workplaces as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
Then the real world intervened. A severe shortage of job seekers, an exodus of police following the death of George Floyd, and legislative inertia at the State Capitol have slowed down plans for Metro Transit.
An additional snag for the agency: the initiative doesn’t even require local taxpayers’ money. It is largely funded by federal COVID-19 relief money.
“I meet with transit police chiefs from all over the country and parts of Europe, and everyone is going through the same thing,” Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell said. After two years of global unrest and the pandemic, he said, those interested in law enforcement as a career might think twice before taking the plunge.
The number of full-time Metro Transit police officers is the same as when the safety initiative was announced last summer. Eight full-time officers have since been recruited, but staffing progress has been thwarted by attrition. While the ministry is authorized to employ 170 full-time officers, only 111 are on the payroll.
Moreover, there are only 53 part-time staff out of a staff of 80 budgeted posts. And no part-time agents have been hired in the past year.
Metro Transit officials note a recent increase in interest in full-time positions with the police department and hope a class of 15 recruits this summer will begin work as early as August.
“Young people coming out of [police] the training programs and schools are brilliant and ambitious,” Frizell said. “They want to serve.
The use of Community Service Officers (CSOs), also known as Transit Ambassadors, has taken hold nationwide as transit agencies battle rising crime on buses and trains and trying to recover the ridership lost during the pandemic. While Metro Transit ridership has grown steadily over the past year, it’s still about half of pre-COVID levels.
Similar programs in other cities – including San Francisco, Seattle and Boston – have popularized much faster than in the Twin Cities, and with generally good results. The extra staff, proponents say, increases passengers’ sense of safety.
Metro Transit has established a community agent program in which CSOs – students enrolled in law enforcement programs – check fares, connect passengers or people on the street with mental illness to services and call the transit police if there is a problem.
While 70 CSOs were expected by this summer to patrol blue and green line trains, fast buses, stations and platforms, only eight new CSOs have been hired since the security program was rolled out in July. There are only 15 CSOs working on the Metro Transit system.
To attract potential applicants, the Metro Transit Police Department is offering a $4,000 hiring bonus to new full-time officers and has made CSOs eligible for department benefits.
“Each department tries to deploy a strategy to get young people to apply, such as opportunities tracks like the CSO program,” Frizell said. “It’s very competitive.”
Anti-tariff evasion reforms
Metro Transit wants the fare evasion penalty changed from a misdemeanor to an administrative citation like a parking ticket, a move that would allow CSOs as well as police to cite violators. This, they say, would free up police officers to focus on more serious crimes.
But the effort has languished for two years in the Legislative Assembly, and its fate this session remains uncertain.
The current system of collecting a $180 fine for not paying a $2.50 public transit ticket is ineffective, officials say. And Metro Transit rarely sees that revenue because cases are rarely prosecuted.
A Metropolitan Council audit in 2020 found that less than 3% of fare evasion citations issued by Metro Transit police resulted in the payment of a fine. These cases are usually dismissed because the person cited does not appear in court, prosecutors do not proceed, or the case is assigned to a collection agency.
“The punishment doesn’t fit the crime,” said Rep. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, who co-sponsored a bill reducing penalties for fare evasion. “You don’t have sworn police to enforce parking.”
“Doing nothing doesn’t help make public transit safer,” said Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, another co-sponsor of the House bill.
Faced with these realities, Metro Transit police have attempted to bolster security in other ways.
Staff have increased at Metro Transit’s Real-Time Information Center, where a seven-person team monitors security cameras for much of the day and night, mostly on light rail.
Police collect data daily from service calls, bus operator reports and customer complaints to identify problem areas and deploy officers where they are needed. And a pilot program to hire unarmed private security guards for high-traffic transit facilities is also being considered, Frizell said.
The Metro Transit system’s real-time, high-definition technology “helps direct our resources to where they’re needed most,” said Frizell, who called the effort a “phenomenal game changer.”