As more passengers return to public transportation, Metro Transit said Wednesday that crime aboard its trains and buses increased 21% in the second quarter compared with the same period last year. But, they insist, that's not necessarily bad news.

Despite the increase, Metro Transit officials say they're making progress combating crime because more officers are actually riding on the system and documenting incidents.

"We are getting police out of their cars and onto the system," said Chief Ernest Morales III, a veteran of the New York City Police Department who assumed the Metro Transit Police Department's top position in March.

The ongoing push to improve safety aboard Metro Transit's vast bus and light-rail system comes as ridership steadily climbs. Through April, ridership surged by nearly 20%, although the numbers aren't close to pre-pandemic levels.

Morales said he's intent on changing the police culture from a department that primarily responds to crimes to one proactively preventing them. More than half of the calls for service in June were initiated by officers in the field, indicating they are "visible and engaged," he said.

"Customers are happy when they notice a uniformed presence," he said. "They shouldn't be alarmed by the numbers. We've seen much improvement."

He points to several high-profile events this summer involving heavy transit use that went smoothly as examples of the department's progress, including the recent Taylor Swift and Beyoncé concerts, and the Twin Cities Pride and Aquatennial celebrations.

"Consistency will be the key going forward," Morales said, referring to a safe transit experience.

But the numbers indicate there's still more work to be done. While overall crime in the second quarter declined 14% from the first quarter, year to date, crime is up 42%.

However, Metro Transit says the majority of issues involve crimes related to vandalism and drug use. The agency says these categories accounted for 57% of reported crime in June.

Even before Morales came on the scene, the Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit, adopted a safety and security action plan and pushed an aggressive agenda at the Capitol with initiatives aimed at combating crime on public transit, including:

• A program deploying private security guards at transit hot spots, which was rolled out at the Lake Street/Midtown and Franklin Avenue stations last year. The initiative is expected to expand with security coming to the Interstate 35W/Lake Street Orange Line station and the Brooklyn Center Transit Center next week and, in coming months, the Chicago-Lake Transit Center; Uptown Transit Center; and the Green Line Central Station's Vertical Circulation Building, the scene of a double homicide late last year.

• A new law changed the penalty for failing to pay fares from a misdemeanor to an administrative citation, like a parking ticket. Officers won't have to worry about checking fares, leaving that task to others, so they can tackle more-serious issues, Morales said.

• Metro Transit continues to recruit community service officers (CSOs) to its ranks — students who are pursuing law enforcement degrees who will check fares and aid police.

• Lawmakers authorized the Transit Rider Investment Program, which permits nonpolice personnel to issue administrative citations to fare evaders, and assist police and passengers. Transit agencies in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles have launched similar ambassador programs. The first wave at Metro Transit will include 22 new full-time hires. "We're looking for people who are really passionate about the system," said newly named General Manager Lesley Kandaras.

• The Legislature paved the way for a three-month intervention project, now ongoing, with representatives from state, local and nonprofit agencies connecting passengers with services, including drug, alcohol and mental health counseling. Metro Transit will also contract with nonprofit organizations to help with similar efforts.

But many of these efforts have been thwarted by tough real-world circumstances.

A shortage of police officers has dogged efforts to enhance security — Metro Transit is down by 64 full-time and 44 part-time officers at the moment. And of the 70 authorized CSO positions, only 15 are currently filled.

"It is very challenging, not only for Metro Transit and the state of Minnesota, but nationally," Morales said. "The whole profession is struggling."

Morales says the system will be further challenged come October, as temperatures decline and more people board buses and trains to escape the cold. "That will be the real litmus test," he said.