Metro Transit plans to add police officers and more than triple its number of community service officers to ensure that passengers feel safe while taking Twin Cities' public transportation, especially light rail.
The initiative, to be announced Thursday, involves hiring 50 additional community service officers — college students enrolled in law enforcement programs — to work in tandem with Metro Transit police on buses and trains and at stations and bus stops throughout the metro area.
Another 15 police officers will be hired, as well as additional personnel to monitor activity on the system in real time from a central command post in Minneapolis.
The added emphasis on safety comes as workers increasingly return to their offices now that more people have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Metro Transit's ridership plunged because of the virus when it limited service to essential trips, and is now at 45% of pre-pandemic levels. Officials are hoping that extra security will encourage riders to return more quickly.
The part-time community service officers will serve as extra "eyes and ears" on public transportation, Metropolitan Council Chairman Charlie Zelle said in an interview this week.
"The timing for this is so critical as the economy reawakens and as the downtowns come back to life," Zelle said. "We want to be ahead of the curve to establish safety and hospitality on transit.
"There's no question there's been publicity about danger everywhere, and certainly transit platforms and transit are not immune to that."
The initiative will cost $4 million annually, to be covered by federal COVID-19 relief funds.
The move by Metro Transit comes after efforts at the State Capitol again proved futile this session to create a phalanx of transit agents to check fares and connect troubled passengers — particularly those who are homeless, substance abusers or mentally ill — with available services.
Given that reality, transit officials decided to retool the existing community service officer program that allows for up to 20 officers, who currently largely tend to administrative tasks.
That will change in coming months. After completing training, community service officers will check fares and aid passengers aboard trains and buses, initially with officers from the Metro Transit police force. They will help educate riders on "code of conduct" issues — riders putting feet on seats, eating or engaging in disruptive behavior.
Community service officers won't be able to ticket people for not paying fares, but they can write warnings. Under the new program they will be armed with Tasers and radios, and wear blue shirts with reflective markings, blue cargo pants and baseball hats to make them recognizable.
"It's less of a police presence, and more of a customer service presence," Zelle said.
By year's end, Metro Transit hopes to have 30 community service officers working on trains and buses, and 70 by the summer of 2022.
Of the 15 additional police officers Metro Transit plans to hire, five will work in the agency's information center in Minneapolis, where activity throughout the system is monitored in real time.
Metro Transit is currently authorized to employ 141 full-time officers and 51 part-timers. Officials expect the police force will be fully staffed by the end of the year.
"Seasoned officers watching the system are able to identify situations before they escalate and help with safety and livability issues," Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell said in an interview. "They can dispatch officers and be more proactive than reactive."
Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra said the new initiative builds on efforts over the past two years to improve the passenger experience aboard buses and trains.
That includes adding maintenance and cleaning workers, extra cleaning of light-rail trains, replacing cloth seats on trains with easily wiped plastic seats, and adding cameras aboard trains and stations along with the staffers to monitor them.
Metro Transit isn't alone in trying out new ways to ensure passenger safety. Unarmed personnel have been hired by public transit agencies in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., according to a study released this week by Transit Center, a nonprofit organization based in New York.
"These interventions also allow transit police to spend less time on 'quality of life' offenses and focus more attention on the core mission of deterring violence," the report notes.
"This is a great opportunity for agencies to rethink their approach to policing," said Chris Van Eyken, Transit Center's senior program associate. "Maintaining order doesn't have to be entirely punitive. This frees up police so they can focus on violent crime."