Metro Transit Capitol

A Festivus Greivance: We Need a Change in How We Police the Green Line

Metro Transit Capitol

I ride the Green line everyday and so does my partner.  We are very lucky that we have a little house in Saint Paul and can walk to the Green line.  We are slightly less lucky to experience some of the non-sense that has been occurring on the train recently.

But before I begin, a few disclosures:

Disclosure No 1: This essay is about policing.

It is critical of policing, but it also suggests that policing is necessary.  You are welcome to believe that we should have no police whatsoever or that police should have twice the funding they currently have and also be draped in hymns and American flags.  It is your right to believe these things!  This is America after all: your right to free speech is sacrosanct.

But for the purposes of this essay, I want to stick to the ideas that a) we have a police force and we are keeping it b) they are in service to the community and since we pay their bills they owe us accountability and c) being a cop is a super hard job, but that job can be easier and more effective with training and community input/support the latter of which I offer here.

Disclosure No 2: My whiteness and maleness give me privilege to write this essay with relative impunity.

I am white and though I prefer the term “European mutt” to the term “white” as “white” was a term created by the Virginia legislators in 1691 with the express intent of retaining power for rich landowners in the face of Irish and African slave revolts, I do understand that my lighter Welsh/Italian/Ukranian skin affords me a huge amount of privilege in this country, especially in how I am able to interact with the police.

Racism is a measurable problem in police work, so If you have had a negative interaction with the police and you are something other than a “European mutt” and you are reading this: I feel you.  You have every right emotionally and spiritually to feel wronged by the police because that has happened and it is with good reason many people of color do not trust the police.  You are also allowed to roll your eyes and say “oh great another white dude with some moderate thoughts on policing, no way they are shooting at him.” All this is fair.  And Again: I feel you.

With all disclosures aside:  here are my humble suggestions regarding policing the Green line.

A: “Officer Friendly” Presence Must be for the Whole Line, not just from Snelling to US Bank Stadium

In general, I think the Metro Transit police force is underestimating the benefit of “Officer Friendlys.”  An “Officer Friendly” is a term used to describe when police are kind to children just to have a positive community presence.  I believe police can and should be kind to people even if they are not children so I am using the term here to describe when police hop on the train and just hang out.  They smile at people.  Usually they talk between themselves and let transit riders go about their day.

This has two benefits.  First, it’s good vibes to have “Officer Friendly” on the train.  It’s like when police give out popsicles in the summer: the force is humanized, law abiding citizens relax, and the kindness improves community relationships with the police so the community is more able to interact with the police from a place of comfort not fear.

This allows citizens to give needed input into the services they pay for making necessary police funding more palatable.  People are much more likely to want to fund the social-services-trained “Officer Friendly” than the officer who let their K-9 bite someone.  Being nice is great.  People like nice.

And for people that aren’t interested in playing nice and have the “Mens Rea” to cause trouble, it’s less likely they are gonna want to start trouble when there are two officers hanging out.

Troublemakers have noticed this lack of police presence: the dudes who jumped on the train a week ago and sparked a stinky cheap blunt (which I mean maybe its a victim-less crime, but 6am, really?) got on for two stops and got off before the stop where the police usually board.

The guy who has told myself and my partner “You better treat her right or I’m gonna murder you and fuck her,”  gets on right where the police get off.  I know this because this has happened MORE THAN ONCE to me and MORE THAN THAT to her.

And there were no cops, consistently, so the guy consistently harasses because he can reasonably expect less police after Snelling.  And the harassment continues unstopped, usually aimed at women.

The cops can’t stop this because they aren’t there.

What are they doing anyway, getting on at US Bank and off at Snelling?

B: Fare Checks Need to Stop.  Entirely.

After reporting harassment such as what is described above, I usually see an increase in police presence on the train.  But that presence seems overwhelmingly concerned with checking fares.  This is problematic.

First of all, fares overwhelmingly don’t fund transit.  I have written about this before as it is widely believed that fare dodging is a serious crime against society.  

The reality is transit is overwhelmingly funded by new auto sales taxes.  I know it’s a dumb way to do things, but it’s the way we do it.  The fares are negligible when it comes to global funding.  I’ve talked to award winning police officers about this and they agree that they’re wasting their time patrolling something that offers no benefit to society or transit funding as a whole.

But public opinion is what it is: people often complain about fare dodgers so the police feel compelled to respond to it though they know it’s meaningless.

So if you are one of the “Beckys” complaining about fare dodging, please, for everybody, just stop.   You are wasting everyone’s time, the police included.

Secondly, it is in my opinion questionable whether or not the police have a right to check fares as the fourth amendment protects against searches without cause.

I am not a lawyer, and if you have a specific circumstance regarding the police you have questions on, I would recommend contacting a lawyer and reading the  rest of this essay as a citizen’s opinion.

That said, it seems in order to facilitate checking fares, officers must get consent from citizens.  If citizens do not consent, officers threaten to remove them from the train.  This means that the officers have already threatened to limit freedom of mobility prior to getting reasonable articulable suspicion.  This isn’t right.

I tested this theory a few days ago with an officer.  I was drawing when he approached and had a particularly good weird eyeball going, so I asked the officer if he had any reasonable suspicion that I was engaging in crime or carrying a weapon.  He said he had no suspicion he could express and followed up by saying he’d throw me off the train if I didn’t let him check my fare.

Img 5948

A Particularly Good Weird Eyeball

Because I’m privileged, I gave him my monthly pass and he walked away saying “keep articulating, bro.”  For the record, I will keep articulating and this essay is dedicated to that officer’s admonition to keep expressing myself.  Specifically, I will articulate that I would prefer officers to protect and serve rather than violate my constitutionally protected rights.

I understand I am incredibly privileged to have a police interaction like I just described, as I’ve seen the police do the same thing to other people with much different results.  One was an old woman who didn’t speak any English.  They hauled her off the train.  Another was a man the police shook to wake up and he frantically searched for his fare.  They threw him off the train into the cold as he found his fare, waved it at them shouting, and pounded on the door to the warm train.  The officers laughed at him until I stopped them by asking “What was your probable cause in this, Officer?”  The officer shrugged and said, “Gotta check fares.”

I get that being a police officer is a tough job.  But that doesn’t justify bullying people to uphold a literally meaningless fare violation.  And it certainly doesn’t justify violations of fundamental American rights outlined in the constitution.

It’s fair that I expect officers to protect me from death threats and protect my partner from rape threats.  That is a hard job, but it is the job they are paid to do.

Let’s expect officers to do their jobs and not let meaningless and often times unconstitutional fare checks take up all their time.

C: Hustle Your Electeds Until They Give “Sleepers” a Dignified Place to Sleep.  Stop Making this a Policing Issue. 

It is no secret to readers of that we are in the midst of a housing crisis.  Although it is traditional amongst urbanists to hear the words “housing crisis” and immediately begin a furtive and furious discussion about zoning, I will leave that discuss to smarter people than me and merely describe what I see in this crisis.

Minnesota gets very cold.  We are the largest metro area in America this far from the equator.  Anything farther north and you’re in Canada.

Because of this, homelessness becomes a serious health risk in the Twin Cities as you can literally freeze to death by not having a home.  So: many homeless people sleep on the train.

It’s warm and they don’t want to die.

All the shelters are full and have been for years.

Public funding for VA homeless services was cut decades ago and hasn’t been renewed.

So they sleep on the train.  Because it’s warm. And they don’t want to die.

And since the shelters are full and housing is expensive, there are more homeless people sleeping on the train everyday, and it’s not even January.

The police know this.  They have power points and training about it.  They do other good things too behind the scenes, intentionally out of the biased theater lights of politics or the fecund dumpster vomit of social media.

But people are frustrated about the situation and they complain.  The police then have to make policy based on complaints, and part of that is removing sleeping homeless people from the train every morning.  Into the snow.

I’ve spoken with police leaders about this, and they don’t like it any more than I do.  Nobody signed up to be a cop because they love Ebenezer Scrooge and it is emotionally taxing for many of these officers to day in and day out wake up a bunch of homeless people, many of which are veterans, and march them into the snow.

Though I think most of the force is generally good officers, I can see how dealing with this again and again and again could make a good officers have a bad day.  And a good officer on a bad day can still do bad things.

It’s a bad scene for everybody.

I play a mind game sometimes when my home owning privileged self gets on the train and I feel frustrated all the seats are full of sleeping homeless people and I can’t sit down or put my bike anywhere.

Remember those American flags and hymns we were talking about earlier?  I try to close my eyes and imagine where these homeless people, many being veterans, were when they were serving that flag.  I try to imagine the things they’ve seen they can’t un-see.  And I try to remember the friends they will never see again because they came home draped in an American flag.

It is nothing short than a cultural moral crisis that we’ve let it get this bad.  Veterans shouldn’t be sleeping on the trains carrying the weight of the wars they’ve fought with no mental health services to help them.  And they sure as hell shouldn’t come home to be homeless.

And we sure as Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, etc. shouldn’t be complaining to the cops about them sleeping on the damn train.

We should be outraged and angry, but instead of dehumanizing the police into a mechanism to aide our continued denial by complaining about those sleeping with no home, we should not rest until each and every one of these Americans has a place to rest and access to services to help them carry the weight of the things they’ve seen.  We should feel even greater outrage for those whose lands were taken from them that now ride this train upon the same stolen lands as a homeless person.

Let not your elected rest either.  In the next life we like Ebenezer’s partners will be remembered for both the things we do and the things we do not do.

I speak in strong words here because these things are very personal to me.  This train I ride everyday is a diorama of my American experience, and because of that I can’t help but see myself as a younger man wandering along University Avenue.  I can’t help but see my relatives now passed on with the stories they could never truly express about their military service.  I see my ancestors who fought in the American revolution to bring us constitutional rights haunting this train as a ghost when I see a fourth amendment right being violated.  In the present I see those I love being harassed continually.  In the corner of my eye I see my snickering Italian great uncle selling oranges in Brooklyn when I see an immigrant kicked off the train. Past or present, ghost or not, this common space is a play being written of our America right before our eyes.

When we let homelessness and poor policing practices take center stage, it is our own story we turn into a tragedy.  So lets pick up pens and rewrite this story.  Let’s have better policing on the train. And let’s give the police a break by giving these homeless Americans a place to stay so the police at our request don’t have to be perpetually kicking them off the train.

This train is our American story.  So get your pen.  We’ve got a lot of edits to do.

Daniel Choma

About Daniel Choma

Daniel Choma is a community advocate, a jazz musician, and a former bible salesman. He rides bikes, plays drums, and tells jokes. He can consume a bag of jelly beans faster than almost anyone.