Transit officials have added patrols and classical music to try to discourage troublemakers. The latest tools: High-tech cameras.
One early afternoon last month Krystle Roby and her young daughter stepped off the light rail at the Lake Street station and descended toward the exit and a crime scene.
"They were hurting that man bad, punching him, kicking him," Roby said, recalling the beating of a 56-year-old man outside the station. "I'm seeing this as I'm coming down the steps."
Described as a "riot" in a police report, the incident explains the intensifying efforts to police the most troublesome light-rail transit station in the Twin Cities.
Police have increased patrols and even added classical music in an effort to deter troublemakers.
Now they're turning to technology: more and better surveillance cameras to record crime scenes and discourage criminals.
Metro Transit is replacing eight cameras at the station with 24 high-definition models, installing them on the upstairs platform, ground-floor lobbies and along the sidewalk outside the station in spots that have escaped attention.
On a busy road and major bus routes, the Lake Street station has heavier passenger traffic than most stops. And unlike open-air stations on the Hiawatha line, the Lake Street station poses peculiar problems. Its enclosed lobby and long platform stretching over a busy section of the street provide plenty of space for loiterers -- and worse.
In the first half of 2012, Metro Transit police responded to 42 incidents there involving assaults, fights, harassment, robberies, thefts and illegal weapons -- one serious event every four days. Add lesser incidents such as drunkenness, vandalism and disorderly conduct, and transit police handled on average one incident every day at the station.
"There are lots of dead spots where the video just didn't capture anything," said Acting Transit Police Chief A.J. Olson. "Like behind the elevators and in the shelters and near the ticket vending machines."
Open access creates hangout
While the design of the Lake Street station resembles traditional rapid-transit stations in other cities, it lacks the turnstiles they use to restrict access to ticket holders. Riders say the station sometimes becomes a hangout for rowdy teens and patrons of liquor stores within a couple blocks of the station.
"A lot of bullying and wanting to argue, drinking, smoking weed, selling pills," is how Sharon Sumner, 50, described the atmosphere. She told police in May that she fought two people who pulled a backpack off her in the station as she was getting on the escalator. More and better cameras, she said, "would be a good idea."
Doubts about cameras
The belief that cameras can deter crime has its skeptics.
"Any deterrent effect that's just based on offender perception without any evidence on the street that it makes a difference in risk of apprehension is going to be very short-lived," said Nancy La Vigne, a director at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank that has studied the effect of surveillance cameras on crime outside that city's subway stations.
A 2009 review of closed-circuit surveillance use in London and Montreal subways "shows that it's ineffective in reducing crimes," said Brandon Welsh, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston who helped conduct the review. "Crime was reduced by a rather modest amount, but it was insignificant -- those results might have happened by chance."
Welsh said his review surveyed an earlier generation of security technology and he acknowledged that installing a large number of state-of-the-art cameras in transit stations might prove more effective.
Whatever their effect, cameras have gained support around the nation.
"There's a great deal of money that's been made available for this ... and there seems to be a public appetite for it," Welsh said.
Metro Transit got a $100,000 federal grant for the cameras and plans to install them next month in the Lake Street station.
It will become a test case for installing similar cameras elsewhere on the Hiawatha LRT, which has 19 stations and runs from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America and opened in 2004.
The improved technology is being installed along the Central Corridor light-rail line under construction between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
"If there's a need to zoom in on an image, we're not going to lose the quality, so we can easily identify features in people's clothing or identify faces," Olson said.
A tool for prosecution
Transit police see the high-definition cameras primarily as a tool for capturing evidence to prosecute criminals, not deterring them. But the cameras can be monitored for real-time activity and police patrols can be dispatched to respond to problems.
So far there's no move to install turnstiles that restrict access. Olson said the open-access arrangement is cheaper to build and maintain than a closed station.
While the Lake Street station is enclosed, "providing a gated system at one particular station for customers and changing the fare-collection procedure isn't anything we've talked about," said Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland.
Portland, Ore., is considering doing so at a new LRT station.
The design would include a turnstile or other equipment that "will require a valid fare before you can begin to enter the platform area," said Mary Fetsch, a spokeswoman for TriMet, which runs the Portland LRT. She said a neighborhood near the station "felt it might make it a safer station."
Lake Street woes
Roby described the scene as two men and a woman beat a man "outside the doors of the train station. He laid there lifeless ... the woman tried to bust a bottle over his head."
Roby says she uses the Lake Street station for shopping and has seen plenty of trouble on the platform.
"People argue and fight," she said. "I've seen people having sex on the platform."
Police reports provide terse summaries of some of the more serious incidents.
"Gang-related brawl on light-rail platform," reads a report on an incident in May. Minneapolis police reported in March that "transit officers were involved in a physical confrontation at the Lake Street LRT platform."
On another occasion this year, police reported that a 34-year-old man was standing on the platform "not bothering anyone when a group ... jumped on him and kicked and punched him."
Carol Ness, 71, sat on a bench on the platform last week waiting for a southbound train to visit a friend. She occasionally sees troublemakers at the station and still remembers a day a few years ago when a teen repeatedly demanded money from her.
Ness said better security cameras could make a difference if they trigger quicker police response.
"Sometimes there's people making trouble and no police, no nothing," she said. "Something needs to be done."
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504