A Sunday afternoon stabbing was reported on the Green Line recently. Last month, a Blue Line passenger returning home from the airport was punched in the face. And riders routinely smoke on both lines and station platforms.

The incidents underscore new statistics that show an increase in crime on the Twin Cities light-rail system. The most serious crimes, including robberies, aggravated assaults and theft, are up 35% so far this year over 2018, not including stations in downtown Minneapolis.

Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell, who took over the department’s helm just three months ago, concedes there has been an uptick in crime but maintains light rail is safe.

“If you compare the sheer number of people who ride our systems every single day in comparison to the crimes that are occurring, it is very safe,” he said.

The increase in cases, Frizell said, also indicates that “officers have been much more proactive and have had greater contact with the public.”

Ridership on light rail is increasing — 25 million people hopped aboard the trains in 2018, and more passengers are expected to do so this year. And the public transit system in the metro area is expanding, with two extensions of existing light-rail routes in the works to serve the southwestern and northern suburbs.

But the surge in crime is raising concerns from some state legislators.

“The statistics are going in the wrong direction, which makes it more alarming to me,” said state Rep. Paul Torkelson, a Republican from Hanska, who serves as his party’s lead on an influential transportation committee at the Capitol. “I would hope people that are running the light rail are paying attention and looking at ways to fix it. If we want light rail to be useful and successful, people have to feel safe.”

Many workday riders say they feel comfortable taking both lines, and at all hours of the day and night, too.

Alex Tsatsoulis of south Minneapolis frequently rides the Blue and Green Lines with his two boys, ages 3 and 4.

“I haven’t felt unsafe,” he said. “I could see it being challenging for folks who are new to the system and not really knowing what to expect. But with my kids, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. They love taking the train.”

Lower-level crimes, including fraud, disturbances and violation of liquor laws, are up 14% this year on the Green Line, which runs from Target Field in downtown Minneapolis to Union Depot in downtown St. Paul. But low-level crimes are down by the same margin on the Blue Line, which hauls passengers from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America. Five stops shared by both lines in downtown Minneapolis have seen a 19% increase for the same category this year.

Other transportation options

Crime and the perception of crime, as well as a pervasive presence of homeless passengers and nuisance issues, such as smoking and rowdiness on the trains, encourages some riders to seek out other means of transportation.

South Minneapolis resident Jonathan Sollie said he hasn’t used light rail since he was attacked a month ago at the Blue Line’s 38th Street station. He was coming home from the airport when he said he accidentally stepped on a young man’s sneaker while getting off the train around 8:30 on a Monday night. He apologized, but a group of four to six teenagers followed him, and one of them punched him in the face and on the back of his head.

Sollie wasn’t seriously injured, but he remains rattled.

“Before this, I didn’t think of [crime on the light rail] as a problem. All my experiences prior to that were pretty chill,” he said.

But some light-rail riders have no other transportation choices.

“When I’m by myself, I look around all the time,” said Idrany Budhu, an Eagan resident who commutes to downtown Minneapolis for a janitorial services job.

Once, after getting off at an empty Blue Line stop at 46th Street, she was closely followed by two youths demanding a quarter. She was not harmed but remembers feeling scared: “Since then, I’m always watching. I’m always moving.”

Not an isolated system

The unsettling marriage of crime and public transportation is not new, but there are different schools of thought on how cities should fight back.

“You really can’t deal with the transit system in isolation,” said Vincent Del Castillo, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and retired chief of the New York City Transit Police Department. “It’s more of a problem dealing with the street and the stations.”

Earlier this month, Torkelson proposed beefing up the number of Metro Transit police officers patrolling light rail, increasing the number of fare inspectors and the frequency of fare checks, and making it a crime to loiter at light-rail stations. Torkelson isn’t sure how his proposals would be funded.

But the notion of more police patrolling the trains to enforce fares and promote overall safety draws a mixed reaction. In 2015, Minneapolis tossed out longstanding laws against spitting and lurking, a move pushed by racial equity advocates who said authorities unfairly used such laws to target minorities.

Ben Fried,a spokesman for TransitCenter, a New York-based advocacy group, said the older approach to crime enforcement is the “broken windows” method, which involves officers flooding the system to cite scofflaws for smaller offenses “under the theory that it will prevent more-severe crimes.”

But that method is falling out of favor, he said, because it “tends to be enforced in a racially discriminatory way that exacerbates mass incarceration.”

Some cities, such as San Francisco and Portland, Ore., use unarmed officers to enforce fares and give those cited for fare evasion the chance to enroll in a low-income fare program or the option to perform community service.

In the Twin Cities, there are alarms on Green and Blue Line trains and at stations to summon police, cameras to monitor behavior and a Text for Safety number (612-900-0411) for passengers who want to report an issue silently. Currently, the Metro Transit police department employs 141 full-time and 51 part-time officers.

Del Castillo says some crimes happen on transit simply because “people are annoying other people. Someone might say something, and if someone is unstable, they might react violently.”

The Oct. 27 stabbing on the Green Line began with two men, who apparently didn’t know each other, fighting before one drew a knife and stabbed the other. The victim was briefly hospitalized.

No charges were filed as it was deemed self-defense.