Ernest Morales III spent most of his law enforcement career at the New York Police Department before being named chief of the Metro Transit Police Department last month. The native New Yorker now will oversee safety on a public transportation system facing serious challenges as it tries to lure back commuters lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Morales was sworn in Wednesday before a packed chamber at Metropolitan Council headquarters in St. Paul by Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle. "Stagnation is not an option," the new chief said. "I am committed to leading this department to its brightest chapter yet."

Crime throughout the Metro Transit system increased by 54% last year, with nuisance issues — such as drug and alcohol use on trains and buses — and weapons offenses surging by triple digits.

Morales, 55, was raised by a single mom in public housing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at a time when the city was struggling with a crack epidemic. This interview, conducted Wednesday, was edited for clarity and length.

Why did you become a police officer?

As a child, I remember police officers conducting themselves in a professional manner. They were the guardians of trust. This was something I admired and I wanted to become a hero, just like them.

Why did you take this job?

It's ground zero, with the death of George Floyd. In order to reimagine policing, to reform policing and establish the true meaning of community policing, this is where it began and this is where it must be corrected.

How will you navigate policing following Floyd's murder?

Policing is all about community. We are a public service agency. We serve the people of the city. Making those connections, listening to those concerns, and representing [transit users] in a way that they want to be protected goes a long way.

What do you think of Metro Transit's 40-point Safety and Security Action Plan to combat crime?

It's a report with great ideas. It's now my job to implement that plan. There's behavior out there on the system that's unacceptable for all of us, and I think it's a shock. But now we have to work together to slowly get control of the system in an empathetic, professional manner.

Will you beef up the police presence on trains and buses?

That's the goal. I want as many police officers as we can get out on the system. However, we're having a recruiting problem, just like every major police department throughout the country. We don't want to over-police. But we do want it to be safe. We know that omnipresence [on transit] is very important.

How can transit police officers deal with societal issues, including homelessness and drug and alcohol addiction, that are so obvious on trains and buses?

It's not a police problem, and we're never going to resolve it. But understand, we still need our police officers present to provide the comfort during someone's commute. When we see that negative behavior, we have to deal with it. We're never going to arrest our way out of this situation. [Metro Transit's Homeless Action Team] has the connections to provide shelter to people experiencing homelessness.

There are bills at the Legislature that would make fare evasion a citation, as opposed to a rarely prosecuted misdemeanor. Do you support that?

I am supportive. The way the statute is written now, a police officer has to process an arrest and it defeats the purpose of creating an omnipresence [on transit]. By passing this statute, it will let our [community service officers] write the citation. It will also send a message that this is a system where we provide a service and you need to pay your fare. It's about holding people accountable. In New York City, turnstiles serve as a deterrent — it's a barrier, a line in the sand. If you cross this line without doing what you're supposed to do, there are consequences.

What do you think of Metro Transit spending up to $6 million for private security guards at some transit stations?

I would rather see professional police officers out there. However, we have a recruiting problem. We have a real issue that we have to deal with at this moment. So supplementing our lack of resources with security is absolutely necessary.

You've been out riding trains and buses. What are your impressions?

I'm not going to say I felt personally threatened. I did feel uncomfortable. I won't say that I felt great on the lines. I'm going to say it's definitely gotten better in the last couple of weeks, but it also depends on the time of day. We have a long way to go. I would ask our commuters to exercise patience, but I still encourage them to please, please, please return. It's the best form of transportation.

How has COVID-19 changed policing on public transit?

People have not returned back to the office. But in their absence we see, especially in the winter months, people who are suffering through chemical addiction feeling comfortable on our system. We have to strike a balance where we're taking our system back and returning it to the community, without punishing those chemically dependent individuals who may have made the wrong choice but are nevertheless victims. Some people feel that we're over-policing. I would say we're giving people back what they deserve.