Top officials from the Metropolitan Council and Metro Transit assured lawmakers on Thursday they are working hard to stem a steep rise in crime on buses and trains as lawmakers reiterated the issue is a priority this legislative session.
The agency has committed to spend more than $1.8 million to pay for additional policing in 2020, Metropolitan Council Chair Charlie Zelle told the House Transportation Finance and Policy Division, in an effort to fight the spike in both nuisance and violent crimes the system has experienced the past year.
Other measures announced Wednesday include doubling the amount of staff available to respond to text reports from riders, new cameras for real-time monitoring of light rail cars and authorizing more details of Metro Transit plainclothes officers.
The stepped-up efforts come in the wake of recent high-profile incidents on Metro Transit buses and trains, including the deadly shooting last week of a man on a C-Line rapid transit bus in Downtown Minneapolis.
Zelle said it “gives the impression — the false impression —that you’re taking your life in your hands riding a train or a bus.”
Metro Transit officials also voiced support for a bill sponsored by Rep. Brad Tabke (DFL-Shakopee) that would direct the council to create a transit ambassador program similar to those rolled out recently in cities like San Francisco and Seattle.
The unarmed agents would be trained in de-escalation techniques and ride trains and buses to check fares. They would also assist passengers, like the large number of homeless individuals Metro Transit says ride trains for shelter, who may need to be connected with social assistance.
“If we have a force of trained ambassadors … we will have a safer system,” said Amity Foster, spokeswoman for the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union.
Tabke’s bill, HF3085, also proposes to decriminalize fare evasion by bringing the offense more in line with a parking ticket. Just a small percentage of fare evasion fines are ever actually paid, House DFLers have said, and the move has helped reduce crime on other transit systems across the country.
No action was taken on the bill, but Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls), the division chair, said it would receive a full hearing in the coming weeks. There is no Senate companion.
Transit advocates and supporters of the legislation say that change would be more equitable toward a policy they charge has disproportionately targeted riders of color.
And Metro Transit officials say it’s a way to enforce fares more fairly and deal with nuisance issues —smoking on trains, for example — while freeing officers to address more serious crimes.
Metro Transit officers can’t be on every light rail train or bus along the system’s hundreds of miles of routes, said Wes Kooistra, Metro Transit’s general manager. But, he said, “We have to show a presence.”