Updated: Feb. 13, 12:47 p.m.
Metro Transit officials are vowing to step up safety on buses and light rail in the wake of a rise in crime, including two recent killings on Twin Cities transit routes.
Aggravated assaults on buses and trains tripled from 2015 to 2019. Robberies are up nearly 40 percent over the same time. There have been two slayings on Metro Transit lines this year, the first in more than a decade.
But Metro Transit officials said they're increasing police patrols. They'll also double the staff who handle text reports from riders, expand cleaning services and add plain-clothes officers to focus on smoking and drug use.
Metropolitan Council Chair Charlie Zelle said new cameras will monitor light rail cars.
"These cameras will have better resolution, allow dispatchers to see what's happening in real time in all of our rail cars,” he said. “That way we can deploy the Metro Transit police toward active real-time problems as they occur.”
The Met Council intends to distribute more than 150 housing vouchers to people who use transit as a shelter. The agency hopes to expand permanent housing options and work with social service agencies and charities to help people find places to stay.
Zelle said current law that criminalizes fare evasion requires a licensed cop to write a ticket and that few evaders are actually prosecuted. He said fewer than 50 of about 1,500 citations issued last year resulted in a fine.
"We have been described as soft on crime. That is the opposite. We actually want to expand enforcement to catch and to deal with nonpayment of fares," the Met Council chair told reporters.
A proposed law change would decriminalize fare evasion and deploy three dozen fare inspectors who could issue tickets to nonpaying riders, more like a parking citation. Zelle said that would free up police to address more serious issues.
Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell said he's already working to get more cops out of cars and onto light rail trains and buses, and not just for events like Vikings or Gophers games.
He called it "old school" police work, with officers working specific geographic areas to become familiar with everyone who frequents transit. He said he's already using $850,000 in new funding for more overtime, with a total of 20,000 hours costing $1.8 million this year.
Frizell said in January the efforts helped the department in “identifying nuisance crimes and being able to address them.”
Frizell said he was taking additional steps to maximize the street work of the department’s 140 full-time and 50 part-time officers.
Transit officials cautioned that improvements would take time. They said the problems reflect challenges such as a lack of affordable, stable housing, the opioid crisis and a spike in gun crime.
“We have 904 square miles of service that we provide. We have 95 rail cars. We have over 850 buses. We have 12,000 bus stops. We have 1,100 shelters. Can I tell you we can be in all of those places at once? We can't,” Metro Transit's general manager Wes Kooistra said, adding that they still are trying to address problems strategically.
Met Council Chair Zelle will talk about the changes at a House Transportation committee meeting Thursday.
MPR News reporter Jon Collins contributed to this story.