As passengers return, Metro Transit is cracking down on crime on light rail and at stops
Lisa Webb deliberately sits with her back to the front of the Green Line train as she walks to work at a North Subway fast food restaurant from her home on the east side of St. Paul. From her perch, she saw a stabbed woman near the train and passengers using drugs and smoking. Some she sees are mentally ill and need help.
Webb, who has to use public transport because she doesn’t own a car, minds her own business but admits she’s often scared. “The cops,” she said, “are barely there.”
Stories like Webb’s have morphed into a widespread perception in recent years that riding the green and blue light rail lines is dangerous. This narrative runs counter to Metro Transit’s efforts to bring back passengers lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it challenges the plans of the Metropolitan Council – which oversees Metro Transit – to develop more light rail lines and buses in the twin cities.
And it raises questions – especially among the Met Council’s many critics – about whether the multibillion-dollar, publicly funded transit systems are run efficiently.
Mirroring the precipitous drop in ridership that occurred when COVID took hold 2½ years ago, reported crime on Metro Transit buses and trains has declined from 2020 to 2021. But as the traffic has slowly returned, reported crimes have increased by 29% through the end of September compared to the same period last year.
Metro Transit says this is largely due to a 150% increase in narcotics offenses over the same period, including a 359% increase in drug equipment offenses.
Over the past two months, a Star Tribune reporter and photographer has spent dozens of hours at light rail stations and on trains interviewing passengers, transit workers and police about their experiences. Most of the time spent on the trains was uneventful, even trivial.
But there were so-called “nuisance” incidents – drug use, smoking, partying and erratic behavior, plus a few dirty stations – to make a few rides unpleasant.
The situation, which was already worrying in 2019, has been amplified by the pandemic. Emptier trains mean there are fewer people to discourage unwanted behavior. There’s more disorder, said Polly Hanson, director of safety, risk and emergency management for the American Public Transportation Association in Washington, D.C.
“An LRT car is a confined environment. That’s why perceptions of safety are different than on the street,” Hanson said. “During COVID, people who were [taking transit] for legitimate business were at home, and this lack of traffic only highlights the mess.”
Metro Transit adopted a 40-point action plan last summer to improve transit safety, using feedback from customers, employees and others to develop recommendations ranging from shorter trains to more police. It will be reviewed quarterly to determine what is working.
Such plans may seem inconsequential to passengers like Crystal’s Maria Canas. She takes the Blue Line to her job at the Mall of America and says she mostly feels safe. But recently, two people had sex on the train not far from where she was sitting.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. So she dropped into her seat and pretended to be asleep.
It’s a mid-morning Tuesday, and Metro Transit police officers Amy Keyes and Chrystal Carter board the southbound Blue Line at US Bank Stadium to check fares. If someone has not paid, they are told to get off at the next station and buy a ticket. Some get warnings. Sometimes they find riders with outstanding warrants.
On this day, people are generally polite. “Can you put an officer on each train? said one passenger, a psychology student at the University of Minnesota. “I saw a lot of really scary things.” Other passengers, Keyes said, “look at you in disgust or make negative comments.”
But both like the variety of work. “You never get bored,” Carter said.
They identify certain “hot spots” among light rail stations that need more attention than others, such as Franklin Avenue and Lake Street/Midtown on the Blue Line, and Central Station and Snelling Avenue on the Green Line. When asked if they would let family members ride the light rail, they said it depended on the time of day.
Bringing ridership back to pre-pandemic numbers, Metro Transit is dealing with the fallout from mental illness, substance abuse and addiction, rising crime, homelessness and a tight labor market – societal and economic issues over which they have little control, but which can profoundly affect public transport customers’ choices and persuade them to stay away.
“If a person can’t take care of themselves, if you feel like they might hurt themselves or others, then you have to step in,” Keyes said. This usually involves transporting the passenger to a medical facility.
At the Lake Street/Midtown station, Carter jokes with three people who share a box of Fruity Pebbles cereal, complete with milk, bowls and plastic spoons. A man approaches and asks for his share, dousing the cereal with a liquid that is definitely not milk. It is not known if any of them are waiting for a train.
Nearby, Keyes asks a woman to stop vaping. His request is ignored. The glass of one of the doors of the station is broken and the other doors and windows are covered with plywood. Someone forgot pants.
A northbound train is approaching. “Let’s jump,” Carter says, and climbs aboard.
Too few police
Most respondents said they would welcome an increased police presence on the trains themselves, not just in vehicles parked near stations.
“The Metro Transit police are doing nothing,” Abdirizack Ismael of Minneapolis said as he waited for a train at the Lake Street/Midtown station. “After George Floyd, they became helpless. They don’t live in this community, they live elsewhere and they are predominantly white.”
Despite a recent pay raise and an annual budget of $39 million, attracting new officers has been difficult for Metro Transit Police. Fewer and fewer people are pursuing careers in law enforcement in the wake of Floyd’s 2020 murder and its aftermath. Many department veterans are retiring or leaving.
As of September 27, Metro Transit Police was staffed at only 64% of its fully funded workforce, with 109 full-time and 51 part-time officers. The budget includes funding for 70 community service officers – unarmed officers-in-training who patrol trains and buses – but only 14 have been hired so far.
Additionally, the department’s Homeless Action Team, which connects homeless passengers with social services, is not fully staffed. Neither does the Real-Time Information Center, where workers monitor activity at light rail stations from a central command post in Minneapolis.
Stephane Coleman, a frequent Green Line driver, who works at the U, said she would like to see a greater police presence on the trains, but understands they are scattered.
Addressing mental illness and homelessness requires a multi-pronged approach that goes beyond what Metro Transit can do, she said. In the meantime, she said, “You have to be smart and attentive when taking public transport.”
Private security guards David White and Abdi Mohamed walked through Franklin Avenue station one day in mid-September, greeting Blue Line passengers and telling others not to use the train to get around.
Both men were unarmed, part of Metro Transit’s action plan that calls for posting guards for hire at problematic light rail stations 24 hours a day. The Met Council hired BelCom Inc. , based in Bloomington, to provide security for the station until December for $175,000.
The idea is to increase an “official presence” so people feel safer, said Metro Transit chief executive Wes Kooistra.
“It’s all about how you talk to people,” White said. ” It’s sad. People have all kinds of problems. If they don’t have a home, where do they go?
Mohammad accepted. With homelessness and mental illness, he said, “you have to understand their situation. You want to treat them the way you want to be treated.”
Metro Transit then wants to send security guards to the Lake Street/Midtown station, but private security companies are also struggling to recruit employees. And transit officials need to find a way for work guards to take a break and use the restroom.
One of the most frequent complaints from regulars on the blue and green lines concerns smoking and drug use on the trains. One day last month, bright orange needle caps littered the tracks at Franklin Avenue station.
“They have no shame doing drugs in front of the kids,” said Monica Reyes, who boarded the train at the Blue Line’s Franklin Avenue station with her two young children.
Crystal’s Diana Cook, who takes the Green Line from Target Field Station to her job at U, said her biggest problem was people smoking “all kinds of stuff” on the train. While in college, she worked on a performance tour for country musician Willie Nelson, known for his enthusiastic use of marijuana.
“Sometimes the train stops and the doors open, smoke comes out. It looks like Willie Nelson’s tour bus,” Cook said.
Green Line operator Lisa Callahan, a 25-year veteran of Metro Transit, said smoke seeping into her cab is a serious concern. “It’s a headache,” she said.
Rick Grates, acting chief of the Metro Transit Police Department, finds the smoking problem frustrating.
“If you had told me a few years ago that people smoke on trains, I would have laughed at you,” he said. “It’s like walking into a restaurant and turning it on and saying, ‘What are you going to do about that? “
Another challenge for officers and passengers is the use of trains and stations as places to party.
At 11 p.m. one day last month, a Green Line train pulled into US Bank Stadium for a full party. About 30 people were gathered in a circle, drinking and smoking weed as a boom box sounded.
About six Metro Transit officers approached the group. “Go ahead, guys. Spread out,” one of them ordered. Another officer took a woman’s bottle of liquor and poured it onto the tracks.
A nearby train was held up because someone was blocking the door. A frustrated operator called over the train’s public address system: “Come on, man. We have to go.”