Building owners and property managers in downtown St. Paul have long had a love-hate relationship with Metro Transit and its riders, but the coming of the Green Line light rail and other new attractions in the city center will help change that, the agency's new police chief predicts.
Commercial real estate managers in the city appreciate that their tenants depend on buses -- and starting in 2014, light rail -- to bring office workers, shoppers and restaurant diners downtown.
But unlike in Minneapolis, St. Paul's downtown streets have been known for becoming empty after 5 p.m. and on weekends. The big transit stops along Fifth and Sixth Streets at those times became known as preferred spots for gang members to deal drugs and intimidate passers-by -- a bad situation that also spilled over into office hours. Building owners became frustrated with Metro Transit as a result.
Few people have a better handle on downtown St. Paul's crime patterns than new Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington, who was tapped to lead the agency's force in September after spending more than 30 years with the St. Paul Police Department, including serving as its chief from 2004 to 2010.
Harrington was one of the first part-time "bus cops" hired by Metro Transit when it formed its own police squad in 1992, riding the intercity Routes 16 and 21. He also helped tackle the transit stop crime issue as St. Paul chief in 2009 with "Operation Shamrock," in which police enlisted the aid of building owners to help crack down on crime at the shelters.
"We put undercover cops down there and, working with Securian Financial and other businesses, we used their security cameras to catch the 50 knuckleheads who were selling dope. Within a very short period of time ... people could use the bus shelters again," he told members of the St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) Monday.
Now, with downtown St. Paul getting ready for big transit changes and development projects that will bring many more "good citizens" into the area at all hours, Harrington told BOMA members he's taking a fresh look at how Metro Transit will police the new light-rail platforms, the existing bus stops and the trains and buses themselves.
Declaring himself an "East Side St. Paul beat cop" at heart, Harrington said he will beef up transit police foot patrols in downtown St. Paul, doubling the number of full-time beat officers there from two to four and extending their hours to include weekday evenings and weekends.
The idea, he said, is to build more partnerships with building managers, much as with Operation Shamrock.
"With new music and entertainment in downtown St. Paul, that means on Saturday night there's police work to be done here now. That might not have always been the case," he said.
With the opening of the refurbished Union Depot transportation hub next month, the continuing addition of housing and nightspots, the Green Line light rail in 2014 and a new St. Paul Saints ballpark the next year, Harrington predicts an influx of more people will make downtown safer overall.
"Right now, the nights with the lowest crime rates are the nights the Minnesota Wild play," he said. "The Saints stadium and the additional traffic in downtown is actually going to be an advantage in policing because our safest days are the days when we have more people downtown.
"When downtown is a scary, lonely place with a lot of empty streets, you're much more likely to have folks victimized."
Agreeing with that assessment was Greater St. Paul BOMA President Matt Anfang, who said the coming of the Green Line will result in more people on the streets, thus helping both the business and safety situations downtown.
"Crowds and more activity are less likely to attract crimes against others on the street," he said. "I'm hoping that the presence of LRT stops will anchor both sides of downtown with entertainment venues that each have the potential to draw large crowds who will traverse through the central business district."
Don Jacobson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.