Metro Transit targets fare evasion with non-criminal fines on light rail trains

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With a citation book in hand, Metro Transit Community Service Officers Vy Vang and Chi Vang boarded a westbound light rail train at the downtown Union Depot station on a mission to discourage — but not detain — fare evaders. Mostly, they wanted to be seen and heard.

“Metro Transit Police,” announced Chi Vang, in a commanding voice, as at least two passengers on Tuesday morning hot-footed themselves off the Green Line train car. “Please have your fare out. We’ll be checking tickets.”

What followed was part enforcement action, part delicate dance, with compliant passengers offered a chance to dismount at the next transit station rather than take home a $35 non-criminal citation. Sleeping passengers were roused, in part for their own safety to ensure they hadn’t overdosed, explained the two student officers, who are not related.

Those cited were informed of ways they could get the tickets waived or reduced, such as by adding cash to a fare card or watching an instructional video at a downtown service center.

Administrative fines

Only recently authorized by the DFL-led state Legislature, administrative fines issued by non-sworn public safety personnel don’t go on criminal records and are aimed at reminding passengers that rides on the light rail aren’t free.

They’re also intended to remind everyone — fare evaders and paying riders alike — that Metro Transit personnel are increasingly serious about enforcing a code of conduct that even some diehard transit advocates say has been long neglected.

Metro Transit Community Service Officer Chi Vang scans a transit card during fare checks on the Green Line light rail train in St. Paul on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. Metro Transit has revived its Code of Conduct and expanded transit officer presence in an effort to make the riders experience more comfortable. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Citation numbers seem to bear that out. Community service officers (CSOs) began inspecting fares and issuing administrative citations on Dec. 4.

Through Monday, they had inspected 1,989 fares and issued 193 citations. That’s more citations issued in little more than a week than in all of 2021, 2022 and the first half of 2023 combined.

In fact, the transit authority issued 1,311 citations in 2019, and just nine in 2021.

Why the stark drop?

Among likely causes, police were under pressure following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis to take a lighter touch with vulnerable groups, including the homeless and communities of color. Prosecutors, as the transit authority has acknowledged, have been unwilling to press criminal charges over $2 to $2.50 in unpaid fare. The pandemic made close contact unadvisable. And police staffing ran short.

‘Presence, presence, presence’

Passengers have long complained that transit police and personnel all but disappeared from view during the pandemic, giving a general sense of free license to the most unruly riders that smoking, alcohol consumption and other behaviors could unfold without consequence on station platforms and train cars. At 9 a.m. Tuesday, with just three people on board her train car between St. Paul’s Central Station and Union Depot stops, a woman could be seen dropping her pants and urinating on a Green Line seat.

With increased visibility, Metro Transit hopes to turn perceptions of neglect around.

Mostly, it’s about “presence, presence, presence,” said Metro Transit Police Chief Ernest Morales III, speaking to reporters outside the Union Depot on Tuesday morning following the first full week of administrative citations. The goal, said Morales, is to stay visible while taking a distinctly different approach toward legitimate public safety concerns than mental health outbursts and other ridership behaviors.

As the press event unfolded, a man walked out of the Union Depot transit hub visibly disturbed, wearing socks with no shoes in 20-degree weather, and drowned out the speakers with strings of expletives and plaintives about his missing Nike sneakers.

“As we just witnessed, a mental health outbreak, right?” said Morales, moments later. “That’s a perception of safety. Obviously, he’s a peaceful individual who is expressing his point of view. That may make people feel uncomfortable. So we feel that by having our (community service officers) out there, a uniformed presence, as well as supplemental security, that people will feel safe because they’ll have a friendly face around. And that’s what we want to promote: safety.”

Help with patrols

In March, the Metropolitan Council — the regional planning agency that oversees Metro Transit – approved a $6 million contract with a private security firm, Allied Universal, to help patrol light rail stations and transit centers with the highest calls for service.

The 17-member Met Council was poised to add another $5 million to the contract on Wednesday so Allied security officers could begin riding transit, offering customer assistance, checking fares and issuing administrative citations, much like the community service officers.

Metro Transit Community Service Officer Vy Vang writes a citation for an unticketed rider on the Green Line in St. Paul on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. Metro Transit has revived its Code of Conduct and expanded transit officer presence in an effort to make riders experience more comfortable. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

In addition, Morales said Metro Transit has inked contracts with a dozen street outreach and social service agencies, whose members ride the Blue and Green lines from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to offer services to passengers in distress, including referrals to homeless shelters run by Catholic Charities. Reported crimes, which increased as more officers and transit personnel have ridden the system, dropped 33% over the course of the first nine months of the year.

Some passengers have already noticed a difference.

“I’ve generally seen less smoking and disruptive behavior on the Blue Line, at least in my personal experience,” said Katie Nicholson, a Highland Park resident who has ridden Metro Transit for the past five years. “It felt cleaner to me.”

More changes coming

Metro Transit General Manager Lesley Kandaras, who took the reins in July, said more changes are on the horizon. The Met Council this week is poised to approve a new passenger Code of Conduct that emphasizes orderly behavior.

Morales, who took over as police chief in February, said recruitment continues for both community service officers and sworn staff, some of which work part-time during their days off with other departments.

And the administrative citations issued by non-sworn personnel will also continue, if not increase.

“We’ll continue to look for ways to really grow that program moving forward, because we do feel a lot of urgency around addressing the issues we’re seeing,” Kandaras said.

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