As riders return, transit system again faces safety, nuisance issues
July 21, 2021-Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: H. Trostle is at 46th Street Station in Minneapolis. A pandemic-induced ridership decreased has spurred an increase in safety and quality-of-life complaints on Metro Transit’s light rail and rapid bus network. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.
Editor’s note: After this story was published, the Reformer became aware that the writer, who was once active in a group called Twin Cities Transit Riders Union, said during a 2018 Met Council meeting, “Abolish Metro Transit Police.” To avoid perceptions of bias on the issue, Pan will not be reporting on transit safety issues for the Reformer for the foreseeable future.
Cynthia Stuen appeared visibly distraught after getting off of the 721 bus and venturing into Brooklyn Center Transit Center recently. Stuen and her fiancé said they were threatened just before getting off.
“They threatened to kill my fiancé. We got off the bus here, (then) he stole a bike and ran that way,” Stuen said, pointing south as three young people ran in and out of the transit center, taunting a disheveled person.
Then a man sitting next to Stuen took out a pipe, lit it up and tried to stick it in her mouth. Stuen screamed, stood up and bolted away from him. A couple minutes later, the man lit the pipe again and tried to stick it in another woman’s mouth. The woman screamed and briskly walked out of the waiting room. The man then made his way to a waiting C Line bus.
As Minnesotans return to the metro region’s vast transit system, they again face nuisance and safety issues. Even as fears of the Delta variant dampen plans for a return to normal, ridership on the metro region’s vast transit system is returning, having exceeded 900,000 boardings over the past four months across Metro Transit’s A, C and Red Line buses, as well as the Blue and Green light rail lines, which are collectively known as the METRO system.
Calls for Metro Transit Police to respond to incidents have increased threefold over the three-month period between April and June compared to the same period last year, though calls for service during the month of July decreased. Most of these calls were for “prohibited acts” such as eating, drinking, smoking, littering and loudly playing music, as well as for disorderly conduct.
To welcome riders back, Metro Transit in July announced it was hiring more police officers to provide the METRO system with a robust presence to deter crime. The stepped-up police presence comes after another failed effort at the Legislature to allow non-sworn personnel to issue administrative citations, freeing up officers for more serious crime.
Despite riders’ concerns with safety and quality of life issues — including smoking, drug dealing, and verbal and physical harassment — some riders and transit activists think it would be dangerous and inefficient for the agency to hire more cops or even give tasers to otherwise unarmed “community service officers,” as the roiling national and Minnesota debates about public safety migrate into the transit system.
“Nobody should fear that a minor infraction like putting your feet up on the seat could result in potentially lethal consequences,” said Finn McGarrity, an organizer for transit advocacy group Move Minnesota. McGarrity was referring to the agency hiring 50 “community service officers,” the majority of whom will likely be college students studying law enforcement but armed with tasers.
The Green Line is where the most calls concerning prohibited acts take place; calls between April and June of this year were up 15% compared to the same period last year, though the collapse in spring 2020 ridership due to the pandemic makes any comparison challenging.
Crime has been a problem for quite some time, even before the pandemic, with violent crime increasing 35% across the system between 2018 and 2019, according to the Star Tribune.
Audrey Hendrickson works as a scientist in downtown Minneapolis and rides the Green Line frequently. She finds that most of the smoking, drug dealing and partying happens on the middle car of the train. “Something I learned is that the second car is the worst car to be in because people who get on the train to smoke or meet up with friends end up in that car,” Hendrickson said. “I ride in the front car because it’s usually more sedate.”
One recent Friday evening, David Douglas, a St. Paul resident who had just left work at a restaurant in Roseville, boarded one of the second cars. Onboard, someone was playing loud music, while a person in the elevated section of the car was smoking, hunched behind the seats in an effort to hide the activity. At the same time, a visibly intoxicated woman donning a grey baseball cap tried to climb the stanchions over the wheelchair seating area to perform a flip.
“What I don’t like is seeing everyone do drugs and (expletive). I’m sober and used to do drugs … but I try not to let it get to me,” Douglas said.
Shortly after Douglas got off, another woman clutching a bag looked visibly exhausted. “I’m not trying to get mugged right now,” she said amid the cacophony. She also had just gotten off of work.
Relief may soon be on the way. In addition to the additional community service officers, on July 15, Metro Transit also announced it will hire more staff for their police department, including an additional 15 police officers. Five of the officers will be dedicated solely to monitoring feeds from cameras mounted on light rail cars and at train stations. The community service officers will inspect fares, enforce nuisance laws and help riders navigate the system. Armed with tasers, they will receive customer service and de-escalation training. Metro Transit will pay for this with $4 million in COVID-19 relief funds annually.
As morale issues plague police departments here and across the nation, Metro Transit Police is well on its way to becoming the fourth-largest police force in the state — not including sheriff’s departments — after the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Police Departments, and the State Patrol.
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Chief Eddie Frizell did not respond to the Reformer’s requests for an interview. At a July press conference, however, he cited the department’s character-based hiring process that resulted in over 210 applicants during its most recent hiring process. “I don’t ask my applicants, ‘What makes you a great cop, (or) how fast can you drive?’ I ask them, ‘When was the last time they did something nice for someone other than themselves?’” said Frizell.
It’s unclear how they plan to pay for the increased security presence once they exhaust the COVID-19 funds. They have enough money to maintain transit service until 2026. Nonetheless, they are hopeful this investment will pay off. “If this service and the presence (of more police officers) attracts 5% of our former ridership back to our service, it pays for itself,” General Manager Wes Kooistra said at the same press conference.
Turna Mahtab, an international student at the University of Minnesota studying computer science, said she welcomes the increased police presence, citing her experiences being harassed on the train. She said she was returning from class when another rider accosted her for an unwanted conversation.
“I was not having it. He was not leaving or listening, so that made me very paranoid, (with) just me and him in the compartment (train car),” Mahtab said, while riding the Green Line back to campus with a friend. She was among a relatively chatty crowd of people, many of whom were in town that weekend for LGBT Pride. “Is it too much to ask for police officers to make rounds in each compartment?”
H. Trostle, a two-spirit person who uses they/them pronouns and is an internet researcher, thinks differently, even though someone once sat next to them on transit and rubbed their thighs. “Even if you have, like, an officer on every single bus, that’s not necessarily going to stop these sorts of things from happening,” Trostle said.
Meanwhile, the Citizens League, an urban policy think tank, is working with the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit, to review the agency’s police department. In a survey conducted by the Citizens League and the Twin Cities Innovation Alliance, they found about 47% of about 657 respondents who have seen Metro Transit Police interact with other riders generally agree that a police presence made them safer, with 29% disagreeing. They also found that the system was safer with more riders pre-pandemic, and that participants wanted transit “ambassadors,” better lighting, more reliable transit service and friendlier drivers.
Marika Pfefferkorn, who conducted the survey for the Twin Cities Innovation Alliance, said at a Met Council meeting on Aug. 4 that the survey does not reflect the demographics of those who use transit. They plan to deploy survey takers to speak with more riders on transit so the sample is more representative.
As Metro Transit prepares to hire more cops, safety and nuisance calls are trending downward as ridership trends upward. Calls for service for the month of July — when extrapolated from data available as of July 19 — show a 13% decrease compared to June of this year. As more people come back to ride, the eyes of the riding masses could be reducing disruptive behavior among the few bad actors.
But with the Delta variant taking hold, ridership may be slow to return, as employers such as U.S. Bancorp, Wells Fargo, Travelers and Target reconsider their return-to-the-office plans. Many more workers may simply decide not to return to the transit system no matter what the agency does to address safety and nuisance issues. Still, TransitCenter — a New York-based transportation policy think tank — found that safety and nuisance issues have a negative impact on ridership.
Metro Transit continues running three-car trains on the Blue and Green Lines throughout the day, even with capacity limits removed. The empty trains — resulting from depressed ridership — have allowed safety and quality of life issues to fester. Although the agency could add or remove cars from its trains over the course of the day — joining similar agencies such as Sacramento — they don’t do it because it’s inefficient.
Just as the sun set at Brooklyn Center Transit Center, Cleo Neely boarded a C Line bus to head home after finishing his second job supporting intellectually disabled people in Brooklyn Center. The bus was quiet. Like other riders, Neely said this makes him feel safe riding.
“Safety feels like this. Nice, peaceful ride, no argument, nobody trying to fight, that’s a safe ride,” said Neely, who was halfway through his two-hour ride home.
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