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!

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

About H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues. Find them on a bus of all types, the sidewalk, bike lane, hiking trail or perhaps the occasional carshare vehicle, camera and perhaps watercolor set or mushroom brush in tow, in your community or state or regional park regardless of season. If you can’t find them, they’re probably cooking, writing, curating an archive of wall art or brochures, playing board games, sewing or cuddling with their cat. Follow on Twitter: @h_pan3 or Instagram: @hpphmore or on Mastodon: @hpan3@newsie.social. See bylines after March 2020 in Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Racket, Minnesota Reformer, Next City, The Guardian, Daily Yonder and MinnPost.