Dec 19, 2023 - News

Meet the man behind Metro Transit's latest public safety push

Metro Transit police chief Ernest Morales at the Target Field station. Photo: Torey Van Oot/Axios

Metro Transit police chief Ernest Morales is on a mission to crack down on crime and persuade people that buses and light rail trains are safe to ride.

Why it matters: Ridership is climbing, but remains well below pre-pandemic levels. Improving actual and perceived public safety is seen as key to the system's rebound and long-term health.

Catch up fast: Since the NYPD veteran took the job in February, Metro Transit has added 24/7 unarmed private security at troubled stations and retooled systems to deploy more officers to hotspots.

  • Under a new law, the agency contracted with 10 community groups to provide social services outreach to passengers throughout the system. Those representatives connected passengers with referrals for housing and other services 177 times since June.

The latest: Earlier this month, the agency launched a renewed effort to issue $35 tickets to passengers who don't pay.

  • Community service officers handling the checks for now wrote 240 citations between Dec. 4 and Dec. 15β€” four times the number issued for 2021 and 2022 combined.

Zoom in: Morales points to progress at the once-troubled Lake Street light rail station, one of six with supplemental private security, as evidence the changes are working. When he started, it was "overwhelmed with drug dealers." Crime there has dropped significantly.

  • "This has become a model station," he told Axios as security guards roamed the platform on a recent weekday afternoon.

What he's saying: Morales acknowledges that riders may still encounter situations that make them uncomfortable.

  • But he insists safety is improving. The department is hitting the marks laid out in his five-year plan "much faster than I anticipated."
  • "We have a ways to go, we understand that, we acknowledge that, but I think we're heading in the right direction."

Reality check: Crime is down 33% since highs seen at the start of the year. Code of conduct violations, such as loitering and drug use, have also dropped. But reported crimes, including assault and robbery, remain on par with much of 2021 and above 2019 levels so far this year.

Data: American Public Transportation Association. Chart: Axios Visuals

Zoom out: Like many local law enforcement agencies, Metro Transit is struggling to recruit and retain officers, which hampers its ability to make change.

  • In addition to hiring bonuses, Morales is focusing on building the ranks of non-sworn community service officers, who can step into sworn officer jobs in the coming years.

Yes, but: The agency currently has roughly a dozen CSOs to fan out for fare checks and other community-facing activities, despite being authorized for 70. More than 60 of its 171 budgeted sworn police officer roles are vacant.

The intrigue: Morales, who has worked for more than 30 years in law enforcement, said he initially committed to five years in the job. He got a place in the North Loop, while his wife stayed back in New York.

  • But he's been getting to know the region better through running and visits to landmarks like Paisley Park β€” he gives it rave reviews, despite not being a Prince fan β€” and said the Twin Cities recently started to feel like home.

What's next: Starting next year, private contractors will take over the fare checks and issue citations for violations of a revised rider code of conduct, freeing CSOs up for other work. Private guards will be dispatched to more stations, including a St. Paul light rail stop finally slated to reopen after a 2022 double homicide.

What we're watching: Whether the crime and ridership trends continue to show improvement as the weather turns to winter.

  • Morales calls this season "the true litmus test."

Read more: Riding the Blue Line with the Metro Transit police chief

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