Eddie Frizell assumed the helm of the Metro Transit Police Department just four months ago, and the challenges became apparent even before he had much of a chance to settle in.
Serious crime on the metro area’s light-rail lines has surged this year, and the fatal beating of an elderly man following an exchange on a Minneapolis bus shocked the community in recent weeks. Lawmakers have called for fundamental changes in crime-fighting methods on trains and buses, while transit advocates are critical of the way Metro Transit officers police a system that stretches across seven counties.
Affable and ambitious, Frizell is no stranger to controversy or public scrutiny following a 26-year career with the Minneapolis Police Department, including a high-profile stint policing the downtown’s core. Now, as the eighth chief of one of the largest and most diverse police departments in Minnesota — one with a $24 million annual budget — the 56-year-old Iowa native is facing vexing challenges.
“There’s the sheer size of our responsibility in terms of territory; [it] includes every high-profile place from the Mall of America to the airport to TCF [Bank] Stadium and U.S. Bank” Stadium, he said in a recent interview. “At any given time, we have 200,000 people in our system.”
Metro Transit served some 80 million passengers last year. Ridership on light-rail lines has steadily increased, and the network’s reach is expanding. More rapid buses are planned, too, a kind of transit that calls for fares to be enforced.
The growing, multibillion-dollar transportation network and the public’s substantial investment in it raise questions about how Metro Transit will ensure the safety of passengers. And the scrutiny comes at a time when strategies for doing so are changing across the country. Some cities, including San Francisco and Portland, Ore., rely on unarmed ticket checkers on trains and buses and have made fare evasion akin to a parking ticket — tactics Frizell supports, but changes that he alone can’t deploy.
In many ways, the transit police chief’s job is no different from running a big-city police force like Minneapolis or St. Paul, said Dave Hutchinson, who served with Metro Transit police for 13 years before becoming Hennepin County sheriff.
“It’s a tough job — you have a wide area of coverage, with sometimes not enough resources,” Hutchinson said.
The Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit, plans to ask the Legislature for more money to fund additional officers — a request that comes after serious crimes, such as robberies, aggravated assaults and theft, have increased by 35% this year on the Green and Blue lines.
The crime spike prompted some Republican lawmakers to call for expensive fixes, such as turnstiles to ward off nonpaying customers and more officers patrolling trains. But no one has said how those solutions should be funded.
And many transit advocates question whether more cops on transit is a solution at all.
“Police show up after something has happened, or they’re at stops to check fares or where there have been earlier reports,” said Amity Foster of the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union. “This is reactive and isn’t prioritizing safety. It’s just enforcement.”
Frizell must balance the needs of passengers who may (or may not) want more law enforcement presence on transit with a business community anxious about the perception of safety on public transportation.
“We can’t police our way out of all these different issues, so you need to find other means of dealing with things without making it a police state,” he said.
About 40% of people working in downtown Minneapolis use public transit, according to Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. “There’s not a single solution to public safety,” he said. But, “there is something important to be said about a police presence in downtown, and that’s certainly true of transit.”
Frizell says his crime-fighting plan will draw on a tried-and-true tool kit to lead a department of 141 full-time officers and 51 part-timers, nearly half of whom are people of color or women. That involves walking — or, in this case, riding, the beat — and reaching out to business and community leaders in an effort to build coalitions. He also advocates deploying 21st-century technology tools to track and analyze crime trends and patterns.
As First Precinct inspector for the Minneapolis police, Frizell oversaw a reduction in downtown crime, which included such safety measures as improving lighting and adding barricades around the Warehouse District light-rail station to dissuade would-be robbers from jumping onto the platform.
Along the way, Frizell tussled with the power structure in his former department — he was demoted by former Chief Janeé Harteau after an unsuccessful run for Hennepin County sheriff. He sued in federal court, but the case was dismissed. He was also a finalist for the St. Paul and Seattle police chief jobs before landing at Metro Transit.
Fare evaders on trains and some buses now are often charged with a misdemeanor. Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs a key transportation committee at the Capitol, said he plans to introduce legislation that would make fare dodgers pay a civil penalty, akin to a parking ticket. In addition, he hopes to fund uniformed, but unarmed, “transit ambassadors” to check fares and to aid with passenger safety.
Frizell says fare checks won’t go away, but he likes the transit ambassador concept.
“It also takes away a lot of the discussion about disparate policing and implicit bias,” he said. “We’re checking everybody because that is part of the business.”
San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) hired 13 fare inspectors over the past year to perform a similar function — and ticket sales have increased by 10% while police calls have dropped by 50%. Those who are cited may perform community service or pay a fine.
Also dogging Metro Transit and other systems nationwide are “livability issues,” including homeless people camping on light rail, and general uncleanliness on trains, buses, platforms and bus stops. The department’s Homeless Action Team will continue to connect homeless passengers with social service agencies, and some 16 people are being hired to clean public areas.
Frizell supports those efforts. Unkempt trains and buses and their environs fuel a notion that the system isn’t safe, he said.
“Homelessness is not a crime, but some people have a heightened sense of not being safe because there may be people sleeping in the back,” he said. “For a lot of people, perception is reality.”