Metro Transit will bolster the police presence on trains and buses as part of a broader strategy to stem growing violence and nuisance crimes on public transportation in the Twin Cities.

"We will be upping our game to make safety the highest priority for our agency," said Charlie Zelle, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, at a news conference Wednesday in St. Paul.

The law enforcement boost and other measures come after a man was shot and killed on a C Line bus in downtown Minneapolis last week, and following a fatal stabbing on the Blue Line light rail in January. Overall, Metro Transit says violent crime on buses and trains, including rape, robbery and aggravated assault, increased 35% in 2019 over the previous year.

Metro Transit, which employs 141 full-time and 48 part-time officers, plans to spend $1.8 million this year to help pay for an additional 20,000 hours of police patrols on trains and buses. Additional hours will be offered to officers "willing to work more," and help will also be sought from other police departments in the region.

At a legislative hearing last week, light-rail operators pleaded for more police protection, describing unsafe conditions on the Green and Blue lines in vivid detail. But not everyone supports the idea of more police on public transit.

"That's disappointing to hear," said Amity Foster, spokeswoman for the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union, an advocacy group. "We're reacting to a short, temporary spike in crime; it's not a crisis and we shouldn't be in panic mode. We don't fire police when crime goes down, but think immediately of hiring more when crime goes up, instead of focusing on longer-term solutions, like free fares."

Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell, barely six months on the job, said the department has been identifying "hot spots" throughout the transit system as a way of efficiently deploying officers. For example, the Lake Street/Midtown and the Franklin stations on the Blue Line are problematic, while the Central station in downtown St. Paul recorded the highest incidence of crime among Green Line stops last year.

Last year, Metro Transit provided nearly 78 million rides to passengers, with ridership increasing to about 14 million on the Green Line light rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul, and 11 million on the Blue Line, which connects downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America.

Frizell noted that an additional $850,000 was used last year to increase police presence within the system by some 10,000 hours, some of it for mandatory overtime. The union representing Metro Transit police officers could not be reached for comment.

Beyond using law enforcement methods to bolster safety, the council is pushing at the Capitol for a new program that would create some 35 transit ambassador positions — unarmed personnel who would check fares, connect needy passengers to social services and work to de-escalate volatile situations. Ambassadors could also help ward off common nuisance issues, such as smoking, loud music and phone conversations and drinking.

Other cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, are rolling out similar programs, and Metro Transit hopes to eventually hire 90 ambassadors. The idea is to free up police officers to work on more serious cases.

In addition, the council wants state lawmakers to decriminalize fare evasion, making it more akin to a parking ticket. Last year, of the 1,500 citations issued by Metro Transit police officers, only 45 people paid the fines, Zelle said, noting that local prosecutors often decline to pursue cases over an unpaid $2 transit ticket, preferring to focus on more serious crimes.

Other initiatives touted by transit officials Wednesday are already in place, such as the $1.3 million recently approved by the council to upgrade cameras on light-rail trains — a tool that could help battle crime in real time.

In addition, Metro Transit will double staffing on its Text for Safety program, which allows passengers to report issues to a central command post by texting 612-900-0411. Currently, five employees work on the program. And the police department's Homeless Action Team, which helps homeless passengers find shelter and other services, has hired two new officers this year, and hopes to double the number of community service officers to 20. (The latter are law enforcement students.)

When asked what he would say to transit riders who have lost faith in public transportation, General Manager Wes Kooistra said, "Safety is the most important issue in our system. We haven't been sitting on our hands."