A Metro Transit unit is vigilant against terrorists — and drunks

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 3, 2013 - 2:07 PM

A special Metro Transit squad gets federal funds to thwart terrorist attacks, but the daily routine reflects a more ordinary mission.


A Metro Transit bus carries signs encouraging the public to pay attention for suspicious activity and report it to local authorities.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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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.”

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