BY STEPHANIE FOX
Unlike many American cities, bus shelters in Minneapolis are not privately owned. They are owned and operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority, a division of the Metropolitan Council. Buses carry nearly 70% of public transit riders on 123 bus routes, with thousands of passengers waiting every day at 12,000 bus stops and shelters.
Some transit shelters in South Minneapolis are particularly problematic. Police receive a large number of calls complaining about men, some perhaps homeless, seen as threatening to many riders at bus shelters such as the one near the Midtown Global Market. Metro Transit’s response has been limited, but that may be changing soon.
On March 20, Metro Transit announced revisions in response to numerous complaints from passengers. The newly appointed general manager of Metro Transit, Wes Kooistra, admitted that there were problems balancing what customers need and how much money the bus and train system has to spend when providing the transit-using public in the metro area 55 million bus and 25 million train trips each year.
“There’s some other clear messages I have received over the past couple of months,” Kooistra said in an interview on MPR. “Our customers want to feel safe. Our customers want their ride and facilities to be comfortable and clean. Customers expect their fellow riders to be respectful. Customers are tired of people smoking pot and cigarettes on the trains. They want trash to be cleaned up.”
Posts earlier this year on the social media site Nextdoor for the neighborhoods around Chicago Avenue and Lake Street recently included spirited commentary about the situation. Janet Skidmore, who lives only a couple of blocks away from the transit stop and uses public transportation, posted that she often felt intimidated.
“What I mind is that they are men, drinking and smoking in the shelter, which is clearly illegal activity,” she posted. “They were behaving in a way that I felt threatened as a smaller person.” People waiting for the bus avoided the shelter because of this, she said, making protection from the weather difficult for people who were simply waiting for a bus. Skidmore wanted the police to get involved to stop the activity.
But, others disagreed.
“So, to be clear,” one post said in answer, “these men, with whom you had no interaction, made you feel so threatened (by “smoking, drinking, cursing, being loud, and generally disruptive”) that you want the police to come. Especially if they do happen to be homeless? That’s not a justification to put them at real risk (as opposed to a risk you are only assuming to be there).”
Skidmore was not so sure. “I don’t think we should also assume that they were homeless,” she posted in answer. “Plenty of the panhandlers that frequent my block are not homeless. There is always the assumption that when someone is behaving inappropriately in public or is panhandling that they are also homeless, which is not always the case.”
And then, there was this response: “White woman victimhood has put a lot of Black people, brown people, and Native people at great risk.”
However, Skidmore’s concerns came less than 10 months after an older woman was brutally attacked at the same transit center. There, two men, Wesley Martin and Deondre Jackson, who were later apprehended by the police, ran their hands over the woman’s body, tearing off her shirt and restraining her when she tried to get away.
When others tried to come to her rescue, they were assaulted as well. Martin and Jackson recorded the assault on a cell phone then posted it on social media. It went viral.
The attack was not an isolated case. During 2017, there were 842 violent crimes reported at bus and train stops. Since 2017, while the raw numbers for serious crimes have been going down, the number of homeless on public transit and at bus and train shelters is rising.
Kooistra said that Metro Transit would increase the police presence by two patrols at locations currently getting the most complaints, including the Chicago Lake and the Lake Street/Midtown transit bus stations. And, he said, there will be a new campaign to discourage harassment of riders and to promote “respect, kindness and inclusion among our riders.”
There are also some efforts to address the homeless situation. Since last December, the Metro Transit Police have been distributing Section-8 vouchers to help homeless people to get into federally funded rental assistance programs. But, the vouchers are limited, with only 100 available when the project began last fall.
Last year, the Metro Transit Police also formed a dedicated Homeless Action Team, whose members spend their evenings helping individuals who take shelter on transit or in bus shelters. Transit Police officers may call social service agency representatives or transport a homeless person to a shelter themselves.
The difficulty is, the police say, that they are understaffed and can’t be everywhere, so their response is limited. The problem is the budget. There is simply not enough money dedicated to hiring transit officers.
Metro Transit relied on state and federal money with about a third coming from fares and advertising. The 2018 $3.1 billion budget was expected to pay not just for transit officers but for six years of bridge repair, new train cars, upgraded radio systems and other public transit projects.
The transit police have a wide variety of responsibilities. Uniformed officers ride the buses and trains and officers use patrol cars to respond to emergencies. The Metro Transit Police are responsible to respond to all crimes occurring on Metro Transit property, including buses, light rail, trains bus stops and shelters across eight metro counties. Undercover officers ride the buses and trains. Closed circuit cameras have been installed on buses, trains and in many bus shelters and transit stops to help deter crime and identify criminal activity. But, there is only so much the officers can handle.
Metro Transit Police Officer Frank Hintz covers four counties in his police patrol car, answering calls in Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka and Sherburne counties.
“We do plain clothes detail and make arrests. If a crime occurred and if a person is willing to press charges, we’ll take a statement. If it’s small stuff like smoking, we will give them a citation and give them a trespass notice to say they can’t return to that place for 30 days,” he said. “If they come back in the 30 days, we will arrest them.”
“But,” he said, “the problem is we have all these locations serving thousands of people with not enough officers. We are in so many jurisdictions and the Met Council is involved in so many things. We are approved to have only a limited number of officers. We are looking to hire more officers, but that still won’t be nearly enough to insure the public safety.”
Currently, members of the State Legislature have not yet committed to granting more money for the system. Gov. Tim Walz has proposed a one-eighth-cent sales tax and a .375% tax increase on car sales, which his office says can raise a billion dollars over the next decade. The GOP controlled Senate has already announced opposition.
For now, the burden is carried by those on the front line, officers like Frank Hintz.
“We are doing an honest day’s work,” he said. “We’re hated and flipped off but we realize that there is a mission. It comes down to how many cars we have on the street.”
Hintz said he wanted to encourage members of the public to write to the Met Council and other decision makers, asking them for funding to hire more officers who, he says, are greatly needed. Until then, he said he doesn’t think the current system is safe. “Would I allow my family to ride public transit?” he said. “No. Not now. Not now.”