Nearly 20 years ago, the Metropolitan Transit Police Department was established as a small security force for the regional bus system. At that time, its handful of officers were part-time, and most either were still employed by or retired from another law-enforcement agency.

Today, as a division of the Metropolitan Council, which operates the transit system, the department is a $12 million operation with 68 full-time and 46 part-time sworn officers. It provides service in eight metro counties that include more than 80 municipal jurisdictions.

And, as a recent study reveals, the department has suffered significant "growing pains'' in the process -- including problems with morale, clarity of mission, accountability and working relationships with other law-enforcement agencies.

To address those concerns, the council and department should more clearly define and communicate its mission, improve internal communication and clarify officer roles. The agencies also should review the legislation that created the department to help lawmakers bring it up to date.

The study/survey was conducted by the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute between May and August of this year. The organization of law-enforcement experts interviewed 75 Metro Transit Police Department employees at all levels of the organization. While they found that staff members were dedicated, eager and loyal, they also found concerns that accountability at all levels could be stronger and that confusing, negative perceptions of transit officer roles eroded morale, which in turn affected customer service.

"The Metro Transit Police Department is struggling as it is growing from its infancy into a fully operational ... law enforcement agency,'' the report said.

The study says workers describe an "identity crisis'' of sorts for officers. Members of the force are state-licensed peace officers, consider themselves full-fledged cops and feel slighted when referred to as simply a security force or fare regulators. Confusion about their roles is also described in the report as "mission creep'' in which officers begin to take on expanded responsibilities without specific direction.

That speaks to the need, according to the report, to "clarify [department] identity and define the roles and responsibilities of their policing authority.''

Though concerns identified by employees should be addressed, the department has a good track record. To its credit, a 2011 U.S. News and World Report analysis said the Twin Cities transit system tied for first place as the safest public transit system in the nation. In a 2010 customer survey, fewer than 4 percent of respondents said that safety levels were poor for passengers waiting for and riding buses and trains. Transit crime has dropped by 45 percent over the past five years, even as the ridership reached its highest point in 30 years with the addition of the region's first light-rail line.

That customer count is expected to swell even more once the Central Corridor light-rail line between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul is up and running in a couple of years. That expansion -- and the hiring of new chief John Harrington last month -- make this a good time to review current operations, clarify the department's mission and officer roles, and position the force for expanded responsibilities in the future.


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