We Don’t Need Police to Keep Our Transit System Safe

Two unidentified Metro Transit Police officers conduct a routine fare inspection onboard the Green Line. May 2018.

Two unidentified Metro Transit Police officers conduct a routine fare inspection aboard the Green Line, which runs between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. May 2018

I hate cigarette smoke, and I know I’m not alone.

My dad used to smoke all the time. I vividly remember him smoking while we were waiting for the bus. It was smelly and disgusting. But my dad doesn’t smoke anymore. He has been cigarette-free for close to 20 years.

Others seem to have trouble kicking the habit. So much trouble, in fact, that they resorted to smoking on the train over the winter because it was too cold to smoke outside. That angers me. It probably also angers you.

Riders of the Metro Transit system have complained about smoking, catcalling, littering and feeling forced into conversations they don’t want to have with people around whom they feel uncomfortable. They also don’t want to wait long for a bus or train, or climb mounds of snow to board a bus.

To address these issues, Metro Transit in March announced a series of initiatives to improve the transit riding experience. They include:

  • Fixing NexTrip, the system that provides real-time information on your bus’ location.
  • Hiring four additional staff to clean the trains at weekday peak hours.
  • Being more conscientious about removing snow at stops, stations and platforms.
  • Hiring three additional control-center staff to push out rider alerts through social media and text message.
  • Encouraging riders to be nicer to one another.

Metro Transit also will require its police force to ride the system more. Officials are putting more police — overtly and covertly — on the following trains, buses and transit stations:

  • Brooklyn Center Transit Center
  • Central Station in downtown St. Paul
  • Chicago-Lake Transit Center (Midtown Global Market)
  • Lake Street/Midtown Station
  • Aboard all of the Green Line, as well as the downtown portion of the Blue Line
  • Aboard Route 64, which runs from downtown St. Paul to Maplewood Mall and serves St. Paul’s east side.

A Metro Transit operator told me recently that operators are taking no chances because of recent assaults and will not hesitate to call the police. They want riders to feel comfortable getting around.

How reporting can be racist

On the face of it, increased security seems like a long time coming. There’s just one problem: Is it a coincidence that the places designated for more police presence are more heavily populated by people of color?

According to the five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2017:

  • The four census tracts surrounding the Chicago-Lake Transit Center are comprised of 63 percent people of color. and 55 percent of those are black.
  • Fifty-eight percent of residents living along the Route 64 corridor on St. Paul’s east side — between Payne and Minnehaha, and at Larpenteur and Prosperity/White Bear avenues — are people of color, and 55 percent of those are Asian.

Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra told MPR News that “the tougher enforcement would be equitable by focusing on data — where most complaints came from.”

That begs the question: Who is making those complaints? It’s hard to tell, because neither the online comment form nor the text for safety feature require demographic information about the person who is reporting. Last week, I wrote the folks at Metro Transit who work closely with the program; as of this writing, I haven’t received a response.

When we create a platform for people to submit complaints, those platforms can instead become a place for people to tattle on those who are unlike them. This can perpetuate racism.

In 2015, the East Bay Express discovered that, within a year of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) launching its safety app, 68 percent of the 198 complaints received in a one-month period that included a description of a person involved black men (who aren’t necessarily committing crimes), and police needed to respond.

Metro Transit’s own 2015 study found that its police were more likely to cite and arrest Native American and black adults than white adults. Wes Kooistra told MPR News that arrests have doubled and citations for fare evasion have tripled in recent weeks.

How many of those folks arrested and cited are black and brown?

Last year, hundreds of people saw video of Metro Transit’s 2017 Officer of the Year strong-arming a woman while she was complying with his orders. The year before, we saw an officer — who no longer is with the force — ask a train rider whether they had legal status.

Folks of color cannot trust the police to keep them safe. So what’s the solution?


BART Board Directors meet with Muni Transit Ambassador Program workers to discuss the programs functions. Photo: Kevin N. Hume, SF Examiner

Members of the BART board of directors meet with Muni Transit Ambassador Program workers to discuss the programs functions. October 2018. Photo: Kevin N. Hume, San Francisco Examiner

I grew up in San Francisco. Every day after school let out, I saw young people in black jackets waiting at the bus stop. When a bus pulled up, they stood by the back doors to ensure we all had our passes and boarded the bus safely.

San Francisco Muni is the only transit agency I know of in the nation that has a program to keep everyone safe, regardless of who they are. The Transit Assistance Program (MTAP) was started in the 1990s in response to unsafe conditions on the bus. Ambassadors are unarmed, trained in conflict resolution techniques and from the communities they serve, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

Daisy Avalos, acting manager of MTAP, said the approach is simple. “Respect and de-escalation are key. Instead of approaching the homeless, mentally ill or rowdy passengers from a position of authority. they approach by offering assistance first,” she told Examiner reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez.

Metro Transit police also employ more compassionate techniques, especially with folks experiencing homelessness. But that doesn’t negate the imbalance of power when they are trying to pursue fare-jumpers or calm unruly behavior. No matter how much you are trying to improve yourself in this capitalist society, transit police have the ability to seriously ruin your life by subjecting you to a criminal justice system that shows no mercy to folks of color.

Look again at both of the videos involving Metro Transit’s 2017 Officer of the Year and the woman he would later assault. Metro Transit said he tried to “de-escalate” the situation when clearly the woman wanted to get to work. In my view, de-escalation does not mean repeatedly telling someone to get off the bus.

For real safety, think big

Implementing an ambassador program can help folks be who they are capable of being. San Francisco’s MTAP doubles as a workforce development program that hires up to 16 ambassadors annually. Each ambassador stays on for three years, transitioning to other jobs with the skills they’ve attained. The Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District and the Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board have similar programs.

Of course, perceived lack of safety on transit is a byproduct of other ills in our society. Decades of research have shown that the main cause of crime is poverty. Poverty is caused by inequality, by outdated notions that squash our sense of humanity:

  • That everyone has to get a college degree when they aren’t necessarily suited for higher education,
  • That everyone has to behave according to norms of their gender,
  • That everyone has to have a car to get around when not everyone is able to do so.

Maybe the people who cause problems on the transit system are doing things uncharacteristic of themselves because they feel like they can’t be themselves.

The ambassador model is one small fix. Instead of addressing the root causes of systematic disenfranchisement, however, the model trains the disenfranchised to be more productive members of capitalist society, whether they like it or not.

So let’s think bigger.

  • Open up the possibility that people can do what they love and still be defined as successful.
  • Believe that humanity encompasses more than being a man or being a woman.
  • Accept that driving shouldn’t be the only way to get around.
  • Embrace everyone as worthy, from the smoker to the joker.
  • Build more housing that doesn’t rely on the capitalist market model.
  • Defend public and cooperative housing not as habitats of last resort, but as a way for people to create communities and to belong.

It could begin with peer-to-peer encouragement and engagement on our transit system, rather than relying only on the police. A transit ambassador program could make the system safe for everyone. It’s a win-win!

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31 Responses to We Don’t Need Police to Keep Our Transit System Safe

  1. Dan H April 22, 2019 at 2:33 pm #

    is Russ Stark being on the train just random

    • Henry Pan
      Henry Pan April 22, 2019 at 2:52 pm #

      Is it him? If so, I 1) didn’t realize that it was when I took the photo, and 2) didn’t realize that it was when I used it.

  2. p April 22, 2019 at 3:00 pm #

    Really? Complaints are racist? Just because the data doesn’t exist, doesn’t allow you to assume the worst. Given the census data showing the racial mix, it is more likely that the complaints are being filed by minorities. Minorities who act properly on mass transit are just as capable of complaining about bad behavior as anyone else. They live in these areas and a users of mass transit. And as a rider of the Green and Blue line, I have experienced the “problems” described. I have also been asked to provide proof of my fare (multiple times). I am a white, senior citizen and the transit police asked everyone for proof. No profiling observed. Research shows that a law enforcement presence does deter on crime. Evidence New York City and their “broken window” crime practice. If you want more people to use mass transit, users need to feel safe and comfortable. That means no smoking, pan handling, driver harassment, etc.. A police presence is the best means to create a safe environment for all.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller April 22, 2019 at 3:13 pm #

      I believe there’s a fair amount of literature on whether broken window policing (1) works and (2) is worth the racially-disparate outcomes that it inevitably generates. My sense, based only on the tiniest bit of passing familiarity with it, is that says “probably not” to (1) and “cearly no” to (2).

      People have racial biases and they manifest everywhere. It’s pretty safe to assume that complaints track those biases (btw, that the complainer is also a person of color doesn’t necessarily negate that).

      • Frank Phelan April 22, 2019 at 7:12 pm #

        The Broken Windows theory was disproved.

        It was widely credited with the plummeting crime rate in NYC in the Giuliani years. But crime was falling at similar rates all over the country at the same time. The true cause was getting the lead out of gasoline.

        Everywhere in the world where lead has been removed form gas, crime has plummeted about 20 years later. Everywhere. Without exception.

        Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum is all over this.

        Liberals don’t like it because it doesn’t give them reason to spend money on social programs. Conservatives don’t like it because it’s not a lock ’em up and throw away the key approach. And the private prison industry….

        • Henry Pan
          Henry Pan April 22, 2019 at 9:19 pm #

          This one, right? https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/02/lead-exposure-gasoline-crime-increase-children-health/

          Then we need to have initiatives to remove lead paint in old housing stock, in addition to the above.

          • Frank Phelan April 28, 2019 at 7:26 pm #

            Off hand, it’s my recollection that contaminated soil is currently the largest source of lead poisoning in children. But lead paint on windows is a problem also.

            Drum has written numerous blog posts about lead and crime.

  3. Pete Majerle April 22, 2019 at 3:05 pm #

    People don’t smoke on public transit because they can’t kick the habit or because it’s too cold outside. They do it because they’re assholes.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke April 22, 2019 at 3:11 pm #

      I don’t know Peter. Sure, you’re right. Most folks know how to behave, and that they are pushing a boundary. But there are lots of reasons why people are a-holes that move beyond traditional motivations, so it’s OK to think about the issue sympathetically.

  4. Sarah April 22, 2019 at 4:02 pm #

    These are all fair points. However, I will say, as a woman who has been harassed/assaulted on transit a decent number of times (including one time when a man got up while the bus was moving, pretended to be losing his balance, and then grabbed onto me and ran his hands down my entire body), visible police presence does have a certain appeal to me. There are inconveniences and annoyances on transit, like smoking, and then there are genuine questions of safety. I have trouble seeing how deescalation would be an effective technique against really brazen harassment or assault. Should we be more cognizant of how law enforcement on trains impacts different people differently? Sure. But harassment/assault situations do truly require an authoritative intervention in order for the victim to feel safe, both in the moment and on future trips.

  5. Sarah April 22, 2019 at 4:13 pm #

    I’m genuinely conflicted about this. I love public transit. I use it pretty well in other cities with relatively few issues. I like interacting with people on transit in a neutral/friendly way, and experiencing the energy of a place along with everyone else. I don’t like driving. However, I’ve stopped using the Green Line for my commute or much traveling at all when I’m alone due to some pretty aggressive behavior from men at stops and on the train (and leaving the platform on foot/being followed). I know the ideal situation would be to ask people to stop bothering me if I feel uncomfortable, but that option often feels like it would make the situation worse. I don’t dislike the idea of having some increased police presence in these situations just in case something went awry.

    On the other hand I totally understand the concern about disparities in complaints, and the disproportionate impact on some groups in both transit policing and policing in general. I try to not be so sensitive because I really don’t want to be the white lady who overreacts to everything. Because the text alert thing essentially brings a police officer to the vicinity, I hardly think to use it. It’s seemingly simplest to remove myself from the equation unless traveling with someone.

    I might use the text for safety or questionable behavior more if it were to alert some sort of non-threatening ambassador. I think that the most uncomfortable times are when there are relatively few people around, so perhaps an ambassador presence adding some eyes to the platforms would help. (This does seem to work somewhat with the DID folks in Minneapolis.)

    My husband uses the Green Line to commute daily (opposite ways), and his biggest complaint is cigarette or weed smoke. I can’t relate, because as long as people aren’t directly bothering me, I don’t really care what they do on the train–although I do understand that it is not ideal to arrive at work smelling of smoke.

    • Sarah April 22, 2019 at 4:15 pm #

      Also! To clarify, I am not the Sarah that commented somewhat similarly just before me. It’s a popular name!

  6. Monte Castleman April 22, 2019 at 4:59 pm #

    “When we create a platform for people to submit complaints, those platforms can instead become a place for people to tattle on those who are unlike them. This can perpetuate racism”

    I agree it could be used for that purpose, but without any data one way or the other, why jump to the conclusion that people are making nuisance complaints just because they’re mean, as opposed to reporting actual crimes?” I’d certainly report a crime but I have better things to do with my life than make a groundless complaint.

    As for causes of poverty:
    “That everyone has to get a college degree when they aren’t necessarily suited for higher education”
    This is true, especially now that you don’t have the option of graduating and getting a nice union job at Ford until you retire. But since we don’t have that any more your alternatives are borrowing $50,000 to go to college and learn how to program computers, or spend a lifetime mopping the floors of the building where people program computers.

    “That everyone has to behave according to norms of their gender”
    I’m all for squashing the notions of what’s acceptable in terms of gender but it doesn’t make any sense as a cause of poverty. I’d feel uncomfortable going down the street in a dress and heels and I’m not poor.

    “That everyone has to have a car to get around when not everyone is able to do so”
    I’m not sure this is is really related to poverty either. If so why is there poverty in European cities where you don’t need a car?

  7. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary April 22, 2019 at 5:22 pm #

    “That begs the question: Who is making those complaints? It’s hard to tell, because neither the online comment form nor the text for safety feature require demographic information about the person who is reporting. Last week, I wrote the folks at Metro Transit who work closely with the program; as of this writing, I haven’t received a response.”

    The idea of people being asked their demographic characteristics when they text for help is really troubling to me. I am not sure if the author is suggesting that should happen, or just noting that we don’t know enough because we don’t have that information.

    I have mixed feelings about proactively (ie, without complaint) policing things that don’t pose a serious safety issue, like sleeping on trains. But if someone feels unsafe and reaches out for help, I think that request should be honored without prejudice as to who is complaining.

    Also, the list of suggested societal changes is terrific, but its framing as an alternative to policing makes me think that perfect is the enemy of good. Big-picture societal change alone is not a solution to a near-term and imminent problem. If your house is on fire, the reason might be that you lacked an appropriate firewall barrier, or didn’t have sprinklers, or you shouldn’t use open flames. But those aren’t going to fix this emergency. The solution to the immediate problem (put the fire out) is quite different from the big-picture way to prevent the problem, but the two can certainly work together.

    Similarly, if you’re getting mugged, the broad, societal reason for that might be the assailant’s lack of resources, generational poverty, etc. But… you’re still getting mugged, and right now. You still need a solution to this problem.

  8. Seth V April 22, 2019 at 6:08 pm #

    This column ascribes bias to the complainers who “tattle” because they are merely “uncomfortable,” not because they may feel genuinely menaced. As a daily (white) transit commuter on the Green Line and the 94 bus, I recently used text for safety when a group of teenagers surrounded and taunted a drunk and belligerent senior. The teenagers were east African; the senior was African-American. After the teens left the train, the senior turned his anger toward others, including me, rifling through his jacket pockets for what he hoped I thought was a weapon. In any other racial scenario–if the teens had been white and the senior black, or the teens had been black and the senior white, or both the teens and the senior had been white–I would have done exactly the same thing. The writer’s fair (if leading) question “Is it a coincidence that the places designated for more police presence are more heavily populated by people of color?” is a pressing and painful one given the anguished relationship between law enforcement and people of color. But it ignores a deeper cruelty and double bind about racism–i.e., that racism literally criminalizes its victims. When you are marginalized, ghettoized, and economically disenfranchised you are both unsurprisingly more prone to–and more vulnerable to–crime. This then is exploited by racist systems to further rationalize racism. So I agree that compassionate, de-escalating approaches are ideal; I’ve seen them work. But they only work when an ambassador or an officer is there in the first place.

  9. Frank Phelan April 22, 2019 at 6:57 pm #

    People who are forced to behave according to gender roles are acting out on transit? What? Talk about gobbledygook. There are many very good points in this piece, but that’s just non-sense.

    Now, I’m told that some of us are more familiar with and better equipped to exercise the levers of power in society. If that’s true, would it be a logical extension of that that if a racial minority were misbehaving on the 64, that a white person would be more likely to text for assistance than a minority? That would be true, even if other racial minorities on the 64 are feeling equally threatened.

    So just because it’s a white person that texts, it may well be a source of equal or even great relief to minority passengers.

    Let’s not forget that underprivileged minorities and vulnerable people are entitled to transit in a safe and non-threatening environment too.

  10. Trent April 22, 2019 at 8:04 pm #

    This article like others on the same topic trivialize the harm of misbehavior and overweight potential bias. Well trained police on the train would go a long way to prevent bad behaviors and training would be key to avoid unnecessary escalations.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke April 22, 2019 at 9:16 pm #

      emphasis on “well-trained”. so much can go wrong… watch Fruitvale Station.

  11. Lou Miranda April 23, 2019 at 8:44 am #

    I love the idea of the transit ambassador system. Policing is overkill unless there has been a complaint or an ambassador can’t handle the problem.

  12. Andrew Evans April 23, 2019 at 1:59 pm #

    I have to wonder if part of this effort is trying to keep the drivers safe, which would then help recruitment. There have also been a number of high profile enough incidents involving assaults on drivers, as well as some stops/corners or stations coming up in the news often enough.

    It would also be a great way to collect some specific data to identify trouble routes or locations. Not that they wouldn’t know anyway, but coming from the public would be a little different than drivers or emergency calls from areas. At that point demographic information about the person contacting wouldn’t really be needed or essential, all that matters is that an event was recorded and where it was recorded. Any follow-up, I would imagine, would be done in person. Constant reporters could easily be flagged in the system and sent to a review to see if their reports are credible or not.

    Which goes back to me thinking this is a way to calm things down so they can recruit drivers.

  13. John April 23, 2019 at 2:33 pm #

    I have an idea. Instead of police, instead of ambassadors, hire train conductors. They can check fairs, keep passengers from putting their wet boots on the seats, ask smokers to put out their cigarettes, see that litter is tossed in the trash and keep the general peace.

    • Alina April 23, 2019 at 2:40 pm #

      The conductors you described are the train ambassadors mentioned in the article.

      • John April 24, 2019 at 10:08 am #

        Then why call them Ambassadors when they’re Conductors?

        • Henry Pan
          Henry Pan April 24, 2019 at 11:16 am #

          Just wanted to clarify something: Ambassadors could be conductors. In this article, I specifically referred to them as ambassadors under the assumption that they would roam throughout the system and not be assigned to the same vehicle throughout the day (in this case, they probably wouldn’t be referred to as conductors). I assume conductors would be assigned to the same vehicle throughout their shift. This might not be feasible as it would essentially double operations costs, which is something the agency can’t afford.

  14. Ian R Buck April 25, 2019 at 10:24 am #

    I wasn’t expecting this article to take a turn from critiquing transit policing to dismantling capitalism, but I am totally on board!

  15. Richard Pham April 26, 2019 at 8:18 pm #

    I am not that sure that the SF model applies as much here considering that many of the major employers in SF created private transportation systems out of frustration with Muni and BART. Also, the territory to cover on the BART and Muni is much less than the nine counties, and even the geographic areas of Hennepin and Ramsey would be much to cover for some of the main routes.

    I would be very curious about contrasting the opposite direction like how the WMATA (Washington DC) police-state model would or would not work here. The District is working toward decriminalizing some of the more draconian penalties involved, but people do not eat or drink on public transportation nor is crime on passengers thought to be a serious problem.

    Although crime is down this last year per the last Security Update as the presence of police has increased on MetroTransit routes, I actually welcome more enforcement as there are certain routes (mostly in the High Frequency), that have both a reputation and police statistics to support greater enforcement presence.

  16. Stephen G. April 30, 2019 at 11:17 pm #

    For those wanting to reverse the decline of transit in the US, this is exactly how not to do it.

    • Henry Pan
      Henry Pan May 3, 2019 at 11:39 am #

      Please give me an example of where an increase in ridership has been attributed to having a higher police presence on transit.

  17. Bill Siegel May 3, 2019 at 4:12 pm #

    Oh man, I have so many feelings about this subject. I live in Midway and take the Green Line to work in downtown Minneapolis everyday.

    I have always been struck by how quickly the makeup of the train changes between Minneapolis and St. Paul. I don’t believe race has anything to do with the crime and general unwelcome behavior on the train. But poverty, addiction, and mental illness absolutely do play a role. I don’t care if people are getting checked for fares on the train. I don’t care that homeless people spend all day and all night on the train, especially when it’s dangerously cold outside. But I absolutely do care that I be able to feel safe commuting.

    At least once a week I have to ask someone to stop smoking on the train. I don’t even bother trying while on the platform anymore. Usually it’s just cigarettes, but more than a few times it’s been weed. Sometimes I’m ignored, sometimes they stop smoking, and sometimes I am screamed at and threatened. “What is your problem?” is the most common thing shouted my way. YOU SMOKING, obviously!

    The first time someone screamed at me I used the Text for Safety. It was shocking that the first thing they responded with was “what race?”, not “are you ok?” or “can you describe them?” I’ve used it a few other times since, but more and more I’m less inclined because I’ve never seen an officer board the train in response to my text. A few weeks ago there was a knife fight! Thankfully no one was hurt and bystanders jumped in to diffuse the situation. But they shouldn’t have to! The police were no where to be seen and by the next stop the three people responsible had all left the train. What good is it if they can’t even get to a train when needed?

    The Green Line is part of my neighborhood. I have a vested interest in making it a safe space for my family, friends, neighbors, and people traveling through our neighborhood to wherever they’re going. There has to be a way to actually making the Green Line a safe way to travel for everyone.

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