The Metro Transit Police Department is considering a new policy that would generally prohibit its officers from asking light rail and bus passengers about their immigration status unless the query is relevant to another crime or investigation.
Metro Transit has been mulling changes to its current policy since January. The effort took on a greater sense of urgency after one of its police officers asked a Blue Line LRT passenger during a routine fare check in May whether he was in the United States legally.
A cellphone video of the exchange taken by another passenger was posted on Facebook, attracting 1.4 million page views — as well as national and international attention. It prompted much discussion in cyberspace and beyond about national immigration policies put forth by the Trump administration.
Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington said his advice to the 180-member force is, “You are not immigration agents, that is not what you’re expected to do.” The changes to the current policy will eliminate ambiguity and add clarity, the transit agency said.
The department has proposed a policy that says its police officers may not contact, detain or arrest a passenger for the sole purpose of determining whether he or she is undocumented. That is, unless someone’s immigration status is relevant to a broader crime or investigation, such as human trafficking, smuggling or terrorism.
Harrington briefed members of the Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit, at a meeting Wednesday afternoon that lasted about 90 minutes.
Harrington said the proposed policy is similar to those in Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as at other transit agencies across the country. The policy, which is still being reviewed, is expected to go into effect by the end of July. An internal investigation into the May arrest is expected around the same time.
Chairman Adam Duininck said some members of the Met Council were concerned that there wasn’t enough clarity around current police policy. “People asked hard questions about the situation,” he said, adding that he was satisfied with Harrington’s response.
On May 14, Metro Transit police officer Andy Lamers and a colleague boarded a Blue Line light-rail train heading north from the Mall of America. Both began a routine check to see if passengers had paid their fares — Harrington said there are, on average, 1,100 fare violations a month.
Lamers approached 23-year-old Ariel Vences-Lopez, and asked if he had paid his fare, an exchange caught on cellphone video. Vences-Lopez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, had not paid his fare and gave police an inaccurate name and date of birth, Harrington said. The officers and Vences-Lopez exited the train at the 38th Street station, where Vences-Lopez was questioned further and then shot with a Taser.
Lamers, a full-time K-9 officer with the New Hope police department, resigned from his part-time position with Metro Transit shortly after the incident.
Even so, Harrington said he did not believe Vences-Lopez was racially profiled because Lamers asked everyone on the train for proof of fare payment.
Charged with fare evasion, obstructing the legal process and providing a false name, Vences-Lopez was subsequently ordered deported by immigration officials, action that is now on hold while his lawyers work to get him a visa to stay in the United States. Criminal charges against Vences-Lopez were later dismissed.
Teresa Nelson, interim executive director of ACLU of Minnesota, said the current Metro Transit policy is cause for concern. “Police need the trust of the whole community in order to do their job,” she said. “If our undocumented neighbors don’t trust the police, they’re less likely to report crimes and cooperate with the police. That makes us all less safe.”
Local police have “absolutely no authority to enforce civil immigration law,” Nelson said.
Unlike most Met Council meetings, Wednesday’s committee meeting was not available for public viewing via the internet. When asked by the Star Tribune why this was the case, Duininck said it “wasn’t intentional.” Audio of the meeting was subsequently provided to the Star Tribune.