Months before George Floyd’s death, debate stewed at the Capitol over new ways to deter rising crime on the region’s trains and buses — and it didn’t involve the police.
The most prominent idea involved deploying unarmed ambassadors to collect fares, connect passengers experiencing homelessness or mental illness with social services, and tamp down smoking and drinking aboard Metro Transit vehicles.
Using civilians to aid or even replace law enforcement is an experiment that Minneapolis and cities nationwide are considering following Floyd’s killing by police. But the Metro Transit safety measures pitched at the Legislature, a microcosm of the broader discussion, languished once the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Floyd’s death prompted civil unrest across the country.
Now the future of the transit safety initiatives in the Twin Cities is unclear.
“We were talking about a different public safety model that’s very much in the news now, shifting tasks not necessarily appropriate for officers,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, noting it is an “important and urgent conversation.”
The experience left supporters frustrated, but even more determined to keep trying — perhaps next year.
“There are a lot of really important things in the bill that we need to get done, but we can’t get anywhere,” said Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, a lead sponsor of the initial measure.
While the House crafted a compromise before the pandemic, the Republican-controlled Senate “has constantly talked about safety within the cities and on transit but [doesn’t] want to engage in any solutions,” Tabke said.
Republican leaders did not respond to several requests for comment last week.
Tabke worked with Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, on an early proposal that called for the creation of transit ambassadors (or agents, as some call them) and also would have changed fare evasion to an administrative citation with an initial fine of $35, compared with $180 now.
The Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit, has said only 3% of passengers cited for fare evasion pay the fine. That’s because local prosecutors are loath to pursue cases over an unpaid $2 transit ticket.
Koznick favors stepped-up monitoring of light-rail trains and stations, with live-feed security cameras and public address systems to suss out crimes in real time. He also supports banning transit passengers who don’t pay fines for nonpayment of fares or who commit more serious crimes on buses and trains.
A safe transit system, Koznick said, is even more critical to passengers and small businesses in neighborhoods damaged during protests. “We have to take steps now to help restore public trust and confidence in our transit system,” he said.
A slimmed-down proposal pitched in June’s special session that decriminalized fare evasion and embraced transit ambassadors foundered. Gov. Tim Walz included the measures in his supplemental budget, along with $3.7 million in funding. But that failed, too.
Transit ridership dropped precipitously when the pandemic hit, but before then, crime continued to rise on Twin Cities trains and buses.
Serious crime, including theft, robbery and aggravated assault, increased 27% in January and 13% in February, when compared with the same period last year, according to figures released by Metro Transit. Less serious crimes, such as fraud and vandalism, increased 105% in January and 88% in February.
The notion of unarmed ambassadors patrolling a transit system to promote safety has been tried in other places.
A recent study by the transit advocacy organization East Metro Strong explored similar programs in more than a half-dozen metro areas, including San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Denver and Portland, Ore., and found benefits for everyone.
“Police can police more and the ambassadors can be the eyes and ears of the transit system,” said Will Schroeer, the group’s executive director. “People will feel more comfortable, and ridership would improve.”
Dorothy Schulz, a retired captain of the Metro-North Commuter Railroad Police Department in New York, said she’s “not a great believer” in the concept of unarmed transit ambassadors.
“What are they going to do if and when they’re challenged?” said Schulz, professor emerita at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “It sounds good, but you may be putting people at risk because you’re asking them to wield certain authority with no support to back it up.”
Schulz does support ambassadors checking passengers for fares, because it would help free up police to work on more serious crimes. “Most cops hate checking tickets,” she said.
Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, recently announced a series of moves in the wake of Floyd’s death, including reducing six police positions and redirecting $1.8 million to community-based public safety approaches.
Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra said, “More investment in social services is absolutely needed, but this should not come at the expense of other important investments in transit safety.”
If transit safety initiatives fail during the Legislature’s current special session, supporters said they’ll try again in 2021, but there may be more disagreement.
Following Floyd’s death, Tabke says he isn’t comfortable with the punitive parts of the initial proposal, particularly the clause that bans previous offenders from using public transit.
“That no longer fits where we are in our history,” he said.