Crime — and the perception of crime — have vexed Metro Transit officials intent on winning back passengers who abandoned public transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's perception versus reality," said Richard Grates, interim chief of the Metro Transit Police Department. "Our serious crime rates are low, but the feedback that we get is that it appears to be much higher."

The issues aboard Metro Transit buses and trains — drug use, erratic behavior, smoking , harassment, and public urination, defecation and litter at stations and bus stops — contribute to widespread notions that the experience is not only unpleasant but unsafe.

"People want to see a regulated system," said Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra. "When they see people using transit as shelter or ... if they see trains that have trash on the floor, the impression is that 'This doesn't feel good to me.' "

Data obtained by the Star Tribune show that serious crime — including rape, robbery and assault — declined 38% once the pandemic struck. But then ridership also plunged on Metro Transit.

Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the Metropolitan Council partnered with the Citizens League to study safety and policing on public transportation, eliciting unsparing responses from hundreds of transit users and community members.

"I stopped using transit for the first three months of pandemic lockdown," one person wrote. "I felt so unsafe that I preferred walking three miles ... to and from work. The Green Line was like a dystopian nightmare during this time."

The pandemic highlighted the issues in stark terms as fewer people took public transportation once remote work took hold. Though passengers now continue to trickle back, just over half of Metro Transit's pre-COVID ridership has returned to the system.

The Met Council, which oversees Metro Transit, has thrown its full bureaucratic might at the problem. The Metro Transit Police Work Group, consisting largely of council members, was formed last year to continue the review. Now an "Action Plan," taking into account hundreds of suggestions from employees, is in the works.

Ironically, the council's efforts come as historically high gas prices could drive more customers to public transportation, where fares have remained stable since 2017.

More eyes on the system

A big thrust of the plan is to bolster an official presence on trains and buses to promote a feeling of safety.

A 2021 TransitCenter report found that one of the most significant barriers discouraging ridership "is the perception that transit is unsafe. Rider safety is a key feature of a well-run transit system."

Many transportation providers across the United States are dealing with similar issues, many of them societal — such homelessness, addiction and mental illness — and beyond the reach and scope of a transit agency.

Last summer, Metro Transit announced an expansion of its community service officer (CSO) program that called for a phalanx of 70 police academy recruits to check fares, call transit police should trouble arise, and connect passengers with services who are homeless or experiencing mental health or substance abuse crises. More than two dozen police officer positions were added to the budget.

But a challenging job market has thwarted the hiring of CSOs and police officers. "I commonly refer to it as free agency in law enforcement," Grates said. "There's not that many candidates, and a lot of jobs to choose from."

The department has 107 full-time and 53 part-time police officers, but 171 full-time and 84 part-time officers are budgeted. Metro Transit is now considering hiring CSOs who are not pursuing careers in law enforcement to do the job.

CSOs, also called "transit ambassadors," have been tried elsewhere around the country, including San Francisco, Seattle and Boston. Chris Van Eyken, program manager for the New York-based foundation TransitCenter, said unarmed customer service and social welfare personnel help reduce interactions between riders and police.

"It creates a presence. There are more eyes on the system," he said.

Metro Transit is also launching a pilot program to hire private security officers at the busy Franklin Avenue and Lake Street Blue Line light-rail stations, which generate a high number of police calls. More locations may be added in the future, Kooistra said.

An effort at the Legislature to change fare evasion from a misdemeanor to an administrative citation has stalled since the Met Council first lobbied for it in 2019, despite bipartisan support. Grates said the change would also permit CSOs to check fares and free up police officers to concentrate on more serious crimes.

Metro Transit is also considering cutting back late-night hours on some buses and trains that tend to generate police calls. "We're about access, so we have to balance it," Kooistra said.

Another suggestion is to limit light-rail trains to two cars instead of three, which would concentrate passengers together.

Ryan Timlin, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, which represents Metro Transit bus drivers, LRT operators, mechanics, cleaners and others, said a new problem involves passengers smoking fentanyl aboard buses. "We're really worried about our drivers breathing this stuff in," he said.

Audrey Olson, a University of Minnesota student who frequently takes light rail, said she feels safe on the train "for the most part. Sometimes when I'm waiting for the train there are people hanging around who get a little loud."

But another woman from Minneapolis, who asked that her name be withheld, said she recently witnessed an altercation between two men on the train in downtown Minneapolis, with one of them threatening to pull a gun. The experience left her feeling trapped and exposed, and forced her to flee at the next stop.

"This is my only mode of transportation, what am I supposed to do?" she said.

Star Tribune Data Editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.