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Continued: Transit cops on wrong track, audit says

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 22, 2012 - 10:17 PM

Confusion and widespread lack of accountability plague the Metro Transit police force, even as ridership grows and light-rail transit expands, a draft of an internal report concludes.

The report obtained by the Star Tribune recommends sweeping changes to bring the force up to date with its growing responsibilities.

Transit staffers often treat their officers as security guards while other agencies expect them to function as full-fledged police, leaving them caught between preserving crime and accident scenes or keeping trains and buses rolling on schedule, the report said.

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

The lengthy review by a law enforcement consultant hired by the Metropolitan Council, which oversees transit, includes interviews with numerous officers who expressed frustration with the department.

Top policymakers for the Met Council, including Chairwoman Susan Haigh, declined to comment on the draft and its recommendations, which were released last week in response to a request from the Star Tribune.

Former Met Council Chairman Peter Bell, who oversaw the agency from 2003 through 2010, also declined to comment. "These concerns were not raised to me during my watch," Bell said.

The transit police department has grown dramatically in the past 10 years with the opening of the Hiawatha light-rail line between Bloomington and downtown Minneapolis and the Northstar commuter train between downtown and Big Lake. With 68 full-time and 46 part-time sworn officers, it is one of the largest police agencies in the state.

But the extensive review by the consultant, the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute, indicates that the department hasn't kept pace with its growing responsibilities.

Officers are assigned so much time riding buses and trains and catching fare cheats that it "overshadows and dominates other patrol strategies," the report said. The police rides "often occur on non-problem routes" and fare inspections happen "at locations that routinely have high compliance rates."

"Undercover details do not occur on a frequent basis and are not focused in areas of high volume," the report said.

Crime statistics aren't gathered consistently and supervisors seem "largely unaware" of funding to carry out police strategies.

Newly appointed Police Chief John Harrington and Metro Transit general manager Brian Lamb cited bright spots in the report.

"This isn't ... where we're looking to say, 'Who's to blame?' but 'What do we need to do to move us to that next level?' " Lamb said.

"This report is a blueprint for moving us forward," Harrington said. He said confusion over responsibilities stems partly from transit police being "a different animal than most police departments."

They defended frequent fare inspections and officers riding trains and buses as visible police presence that prevents crime.

'Who you know'

The report cites considerable dedication among transit police but criticizes department culture.

Officers "uniformly spoke of a lack of accountability at all levels of the organization," with discipline for misconduct apparently "enforced based on who you know, not what you do," the report found. "Inconsistent accountability creates confusion and dissension among staff members."

The report singled out the department's handling of citizen complaints.

"A specialty police agency with a high visibility service orientation needs transparency and public accountability," it noted.

But the transit police internal affairs division falls short, it said.

Internal affairs should "develop an open and transparent process for the receipt of complaints ... a commitment to fair and timely investigations."

The draft also questioned the department's authorization of "carotid control" in subduing troublemakers.

That choke hold, using the forearm and upper arm on a person's neck, has been banned in some cities.

"Decide if you really want this," the report said, advising the department to consult legal counsel.

Confused roles

The report said there is confusion over what crimes should be handled by Metro Transit police or by Minneapolis or St. Paul officers.

State law says transit police jurisdiction is limited to offenses related to Met Council property, employees and passengers. However, they can help other police agencies on request.

Harrington, a former St. Paul police chief, said the distinction contributes to confusion.

"When I show up at a call in St. Paul as a St. Paul cop, I don't have to wonder who is in charge here," he said. "When a transit cop gets off the bus and he chases somebody and he's a block off the bus, he's got to ask the question."

But some Metro Transit staffers also have a lesser opinion of their police.

"Some ... believe that the MTPD's primary mission is to serve as a security force," the report said.

"Officers feel that many of the tasks required of them detract from their image as professional police officers ... MTPD members report being referred to and described as ...'bus cops.'"

"One police officer told ... how a human resource staff member called him a 'fare inspector' when being hired as a police officer."

"Continued confusion and negative perceptions contribute to decreased morale among officers. A decline in morale translates into reduced quality of service to the public."

Yet Lamb said having police ride transit can deter crime. "We'd much rather prevent incidents from occurring than having to respond," he said. "A visible police department is ... who we are."

The report recommended that the Met Council determine if the law authorizing the transit police needs to be changed to expand their responsibilities.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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