Metro Transit runs into problems recruiting cops to counter crime fears

Charles Zelle, the head honcho of the Met Council, has pronounced improving the safety of passengers on Metro Transit light rail lines and busses his “number one concern.” Incidents like the shooting of a man after a confrontation on a Metro Transit bus in Minneapolis last week reinforce the urgency for stepped-up security in order to convince more customers to give public transportation a chance.

Yet nine months after launching a campaign to bolster the number of police and community service officers and rebuild public confidence, Metro Transit remains stuck at exactly the same number of cops on duty as when the recruiting effort got underway. The force remains down a full one-third of the complement of officers budgeted to patrol the public transportation system, according to the Star Tribune.

The number of full-time Metro Transit police officers is the same as it was when the safety initiative was announced last summer. Eight full-time officers were brought on board since then, but staffing advances have been thwarted by attrition. While the department is authorized to employ 170 full-time officers, only 111 are on the payroll.

Moreover, there are only 53 part-time officers on a staff with 80 budgeted positions. And no part-time officers have been hired over the past year.

Officials point out that other cities face similar challenges, following the demeaning and defunding of police that began in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death and the ensuing riots.

“I meet with transit police chiefs from across the country and parts of Europe, and everyone is experiencing the same thing,” Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell said. After two years of global unrest and the pandemic, he said, people interested in law enforcement as a career may be thinking twice before getting into it.

The failure to retain and recruit more officers has stymied Metro Transit’s attempts to lure passengers back after ridership plunged during the pandemic. Only about half as many passengers now use the system compared to before the pandemic.

Efforts to hire dozens of unarmed so-called community service officers have also fallen woefully short of Met Transit’s goal.

Metro Transit has an established community officer program where CSOs — students who are enrolled in law enforcement programs — check fares, connect passengers or those on the streets with mental illness to services, and call transit police should trouble arise.

While 70 CSOs were expected by this summer to patrol Blue and Green line trains, bus-rapid transit, stations and platforms, only eight new CSOs have been hired since the safety program was rolled out in July. There are just 15 CSOs working the Metro Transit system.

To lure prospective applicants, the Metro Transit Police Department is offering a $4,000 hiring bonus to new full-time officers, and have made CSOs eligible for the department’s benefits package.

In the absence of more transit cops on the job, Metro Transit has been forced to increase its reliance on the next best thing — a network of surveillance cameras. But it’s no substitute for hiring more officers, whose presence remains vital to restoring public trust and ridership in the troubled Metro Transit system.