Most of the reports chronicle police routine: shooing away a panhandler, breaking up fights and busting pot smokers.
“Observed a party drinking a beer,” read one account. “Party was cited for consuming in public.”
But these reports come from no ordinary police unit. They are among the daily logs of Metro Transit’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, a five-member detail financed with $1.3 million in federal funds earmarked for combating terror.
Its use of the money has drawn criticism.
“Counterterrorism has not been a priority and the CTU is used to fill other staffing gaps in the system,” a consultant warned transit police, recommending they “refocus” on terrorism and other serious crimes.
But five months of daily logs reviewed by the Star Tribune since that recommendation indicate that the unit spends most of its time on routine crimes and problems like smoking, drinking and panhandling.
Transit Police Chief John Harrington defended the use of the counterterrorism unit to deal with quality-of-life problems.
“The guy that’s standing on the corner begging, he may not be a terrorist, but he stands on that corner watching the world go by,” Harrington said. “And if we ask the right questions of the right people, we get the kind of information that stops tragedies from happening.”
A transportation security expert says it’s not unusual for federally funded special units to drift into other police work.
“It’s hard for the localities to kind of live up to their commitments,” said Jack Riley, vice president of the national security research division of the RAND Corp., a public-policy think tank. “It’s hard for the feds to audit to make sure that they are.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in March said federal anti-terrorism funders lack ways to measure the performance of programs around the nation.
Defending transit became a priority of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, and it assumed a higher profile this spring when police pursuing the Boston Marathon bombers feared they had boarded trains bound for New York City.
In the Twin Cities, Metro Transit was among 14 local agencies in the nation in 2009 to win a total of $71 million in Homeland Security grants to create counterterrorism units. Homeland Security said the funding “applies exclusively to counterterrorism activities” and “may not be used to supplant existing agency programs.”
Metro Transit was given the $1.3 million to hire the five officers at $85,000 a year each and provide them with $15,000 in training. Transit police wrote that the funding “will support the Anti-Terrorism specialized task force.”
It came at an opportune time. The Metropolitan Council, which oversees transit, faced a threatened cut in state funding in 2011 and used reserves and other measures to make ends meet.
The use of the federal funds came to light after the Met Council hired a consultant to evaluate the transit police; its draft report late last year criticized the counterterrorism unit, as well other elements of the police force.
Dennis Cusick, executive director of the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute of Woodbury, said in an interview last week that the officers assigned to counterterrorism were “often distracted from those duties and required to perform other assignments … whether that be their management of public events or … to respond to calls for service on the street.”
The final report omitted the more critical language in the draft after Met Council administrators reviewed it and gave the consultant “comments that relate to scoping and clarity of findings,” said agency spokeswoman Meredith Salsbery.
‘Quality of life issues’
The Star Tribune reviewed all 61 daily activity logs that counterterrorism officers filed from December 2012 through April. Metro Transit redacted names, precise locations and other details, citing “sensitive security information” protected under federal laws.
In one log, the counterterrorism unit looked for suspects of thefts and robberies and “quality of life issues and other criminal activity … then conducted a detail with the FBI.” A couple of lines were redacted.
On another occasion, a counterterrorism officer on the agency’s light-rail line looked for “suspicious persons, packages, and activity at the stations as passengers got on and off.” Yet another report tells of “terrorist threats” against a bus driver.
Mostly, the logs described slow shifts:
• One reported an officer working “the entire shift for street coverage due to the funeral.”
• “Little activity to report,” read another daily log.
• “Maplewood PD requested our assistance working a rap concert,” read another.
• “Fight call at … men’s restroom,” said one.
• “Deployed for a large protest … Remained peaceful and demonstrators dispersed without incident.”
The unit spent much time responding to injury accidents, helping nearby store security guards catch thieves, or enforcing laws against drug possession, trespassing, loitering and fighting. In 28 reports filed in March and April, counterterrorism officers arranged for 12 drunks and drinkers to go to detox or ordered them off bus or rail property.
Dispute over strategy
The logs show that counterterrorism officers also spent considerable time riding buses looking for troublemakers and fare jumpers. The Met Council consultant had criticized the Metro Transit police reliance on “bus on-boards.”
“The current strategy requiring 2,500 on boards per month … appears to narrow the scope of the policing function,” the consultant wrote. Police rides “often occur on non-problem routes or during non-problem portions of those routes.”
The counterterrorism unit — a small fraction of the Metro Transit police force — did more than 100 bus boardings in just three days in April, according to their daily logs.
Harrington said boarding buses and trains is key to making valuable contacts. He said that while the unit was investigating robberies at the Cedar-Riverside train platform in Minneapolis, it learned that the nearby Somali community had little interest in mounting a protest at the federal courthouse where two Somali women were on trial for aiding terrorism.
As for the concert surveillance, he said, “Rap concerts are a gold mine for doing gang intelligence and drug intelligence.”
There has been little analysis of the unit by the federal government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency checked documents of the $1.3 million grant in August 2010 and wrote the Met Council that “there were no findings resulting from this review and consider this monitoring closed.”
The GAO in March called on Homeland Security to come up with ways to measure the effectiveness of the Transit Security Grant Program, which provided the $1.3 million to Metro Transit, and of other anti-terrorism programs.
“In many cases, measures do not yet exist to gauge performance,” the GAO report said.