Mar 6, 2023 - News

Minnesota lawmakers weigh transit safety proposals in wake of brutal attack

blue line train

Photo: Christopher Mark Juhn/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The brutal assault of a transgender woman at a South Minneapolis Light Rail stop is putting safety on public transit back in the spotlight at the State Capitol.

The big picture: Cries for help from train riders are growing louder as crime on Metro Transit increased more than 50% in 2022, per the Star Tribune.

  • Complaints about narcotics use spiked by 182%.

What's happening: A bill introduced by Rep. Brad Tabke (DFL-Shakopee) would codify a "rider code of conduct," clarifying law enforcement's power to cite and remove people who are engaging in dangerous or disruptive behavior.

Plus: A three-month intervention program led by county social services agencies and nonprofits would aim to provide resources and support to passengers who are experiencing mental health issues, homelessness or substance use disorders.

What they're saying: Tabke told Axios his goal is to address the "general lawless zone" on local public transit, while providing more services to those in need.

  • A second bill in the works would authorize uniformed safety officials who are not police officers to monitor trains and issue citations and fines for fare evasion.

Yes, but: It's not clear if any elements of the proposal could have directly prevented last week's attack at the East Lake Street station, which left the victim hospitalized with internal bleeding.

  • One of two suspects arrested in connection with the beating had already been banned by the Metro Transit Police Department from riding the train through March 11 due to an earlier alleged offense, per KARE11.
  • The other was on probation for a 2021 assault conviction.

Of note: While officers' initial concerns that the attack was motivated by "anti-transgender bias" sparked statements from local groups and officials condemning anti-trans violence, prosecutors had not identified a motive as of last week, per the AP.

State of play: Metro Transit has sought to enhance security in recent months, putting more resources towards its law enforcement presence and expanding use of real-time cameras on platforms and trains.

  • But, like many other law enforcement agencies, recruitment and retention of officers remains difficult for the MTPD. Met Council chair Charlie Zelle told lawmakers just 107 of 171 full-time peace officer positions are filled, despite pay increases.

Between the lines: While the agency's expanded video surveillance system allowed officers to track and apprehend the suspects quickly, it isn't necessarily deterring violent or problematic behavior.

  • Mitch Kilian, associate vice president of governmental affairs for the Metropolitan Airport Commission, told lawmakers that ongoing issues are impacting staff and air travelers who rely on the Blue Line to get to and from MSP.
  • "The open drug use is just incredible, even with cameras," he said. "And it's not just marijuana, it's crack."

What we're watching: Senate Transportation Chair Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) told Axios he expects the final package to be a multi-phased response that addresses both safety issues and what he called "unacceptable" conditions on trains and at stations.

  • "You see garbage, broken glass, you know, all just unkempt, filthy conditions," he said. "That just creates that sense of mayhem and disorder.”

What's next: Metro Transit's new police chief is expected to head to the Capitol on Tuesday, when Tabke's bill will get a committee vote.

Plus: Ridership woes

Data: Metro Transit. Note: Data updated Feb. 1 with ridership through December; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Metro Transit. Note: Data updated Feb. 1 with ridership through December; Chart: Axios Visuals

Ongoing public safety concerns present a chicken-or-the-egg challenge for transit officials.

The issue: Full trains and populated platforms can help ward off crime and nuisance behavior, as the presence of other passengers increases the perception of safety.

  • But the current conditions, combined with the staying power of hybrid work and other post-pandemic changes, have kept ridership from returning to pre-pandemic levels.

What they're saying: Tabke said he hopes his proposals will boost ridership enough that "if somebody feels like they want to smoke on the train or use drugs on the train or beat someone up, there are enough folks around that it absolutely breaks social contracts."

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