Crime reports related to Metro Transit's trains and buses increased by 54% in 2022 over the number in the previous year, the agency's officials reported Wednesday to the Metropolitan Council.
Narcotics and weapons complaints soared by 182% and 145% respectively, and liquor law violations rose by 92%.
"This is still very much a learning experience for us," said Metro Transit Interim Police Chief Rick Grates, who called some of the statistics "very eye-opening."
The data, shared with members of the Met Council's Committee of the Whole, reinforce the argument that Metro Transit's crime-fighting efforts are more of a long endeavor than a quick fix. But officials said they were confident that the action plan they adopted last summer can ensure the safety of public transportation in the Twin Cities.
The effort comes as Metro Transit tries to lure passengers back to the transit system after experiencing a steep decline in ridership during the pandemic. Broader social and economic trends continued to challenge the system last year.
In response, Metro Transit adopted a 40-point action plan to improve transit safety — using feedback from customers, employees and others to develop an extensive list of recommendations ranging from hiring more police to repairing vandalized stations.
The plan is reviewed by the council on a quarterly basis, and Wednesday's update was the second presentation so far. A robust discussion among council members followed.
"This plan is a document where we're able to track what Metro Transit can do," said Lesley Kandaras, Metro Transit's chief of staff. "We're the first to say we're embedded in a broader community that's facing a lot of challenges."
Officials said that no transit agency plan can combat social problems such as homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues, which often play out in stark ways in the captive environment of trains and buses.
"You can't hire police to do everything. It has to be a collective effort," Grates said, noting that Metro Transit must step up its partnerships with government entities and community groups to combat issues like riders without homes using public transit for shelter.
The most frequent violations committed throughout the transit system last year involved vandalism and property crime, Grates said, followed by simple assault (which doesn't involve weapons or serious physical harm).
But serious crimes do occur, including the fatal shooting last month of two people at the Green Line's Central Station in downtown St. Paul. Metro Transit Police have identified a suspect in the shootings, but he is at large.
A key part of the safety plan involves bolstering an official presence across the transit system, including hiring private security guards to patrol troubled stations. Guards have been deployed at the Franklin Avenue and Lake Street-Midtown Blue Line stations in Minneapolis, and the Central Station in St. Paul will likely be added in coming months. There's also an effort afoot to use Metro Transit employees on the system to serve as a resource for passengers.
"Anything we can do to increase the perception of safety in the system is a win," Grates said.
Metro Transit also cut back hours at the Brooklyn Center Transit Center and the Chicago-Lake Transit Center to stem crime and discourage people from gathering for non-transit purposes. The Uptown Transit Station could be next.
Some ideas haven't worked. Green and Blue Line trains with two cars rather than three were deployed last year on the theory that more passengers discourage unwanted behaviors. But the shorter configuration didn't make much difference, and rider demand made it necessary to go back to three-car trains.
Metro Transit wants to hire more police officers but has found it challenging to find suitable candidates. The transit agency is authorized to have 171 full-time officers, but just 110 are currently on the force — and that's despite a recent pay increase.
It's a similar situation with community service officers — unarmed police officers in training who ride trains and buses, assisting passengers and regular police. While 70 positions have been authorized, only 12 such officers have been hired.
Met Council leaders will again push state lawmakers to make fare evasion punishable with an administrative citation, similar to a parking ticket. Fare evaders now are charged with a misdemeanor, which is rarely prosecuted. Metro Transit police say reducing the penalty would allow them to concentrate on more serious crimes. The idea has failed at the Capitol in recent years.
"I know we want to change the perception of crime, but we also want to change the reality," said Met Council Member Judy Johnson, who represents the northwest metro suburbs.