The value of law enforcement — lessons learned by Metro Transit

It should stand as a poignant lesson — devaluing law enforcement significantly damages public safety. Unfortunately, this lesson continues to be stubbornly ignored by some.

Devaluing law enforcement sends an immediate message to criminals that their actions will be ignored and excused, while the actions of law enforcement will be scrutinized and penalized. Such a move naturally emboldens criminals while it demoralizes law enforcement.

Perhaps the most glaring example of crime and disorder flourishing, as the value of law enforcement officers tanked can be seen in the decline of our Metro Transit light rail system. 

A recent Star Tribune article “Light rail in the Twin Cities: We have a problem to solve” highlighted troubling data that should persuade even the most ardent criminal justice reformers to acknowledge the importance of valuing our law enforcement.

Since the “defund the police” movement took off in 2020, the Metro Transit Police Department has experienced a 37% drop in full-time officers, a 57% drop in part-time officers, and an amazing 80% drop in non-sworn community service officers.

This dramatic drop in the number of uniformed officers present on the light rail system has corresponded with a dramatic drop in enforcement on the trains and at the stations. Rather than having the time to conduct critically important proactive law enforcement, Metro Transit officers have become “responders.” Such scenarios almost ensure that crime and disorder will flourish.

In 2019 Metro Transit officers issued over 1,300 tickets for fare evasion on the light rail. That number plummeted to just ten in 2021, and 49 in 2022.  Light rail riders openly admitted to the Star Tribune that they haven’t “paid for the train in forever,” and noted that “none of the rules are enforced.”

As a result, the system became overwhelmed with illegitimate riders, some living on the trains, others openly using drugs, brawling, intimidating others, defecating in trains, and destroying property. 

The atmosphere deteriorated so much that ridership plummeted 50% between 2019 and 2023. This precipitous drop in legitimate, law-abiding riders will only continue to perpetuate an ugly cycle of decline on the light rail. 

The University of Minnesota’s Director of Global Transit Innovations Program, Yingling Fan, has described the light rail as depending on “choice” riders who choose mass transit over other means available to them. 

“If it’s not safe, clean and efficient, they won’t choose it.”  

Yingling Fan

The first 8 months of 2023 demonstrated that legitimate riders have decided against the choice, and the downward cycle has accelerated. The number of criminal incidents experienced by light rail riders spiked 36% so far in 2023 and sits at an unacceptable 34 incidents per 100,000 riders.

What is discouraging is the huge spike in incidents at high profile light rail stops downtown Minneapolis — well over 50% increases since 2021 at Nicollet Ave and the US Bank Stadium stop. 

What is encouraging is the 43% decrease in crime at the Franklin Ave stop due to specific law enforcement targeted enforcement. Cops matter and their presence and enforcement can and does reduce crime. Police presence may not be the only answer, but without it there are no programs or initiatives that stand a chance of success.

The new Metro Transit Police Chief Ernest Morales sounds like he gets it. He understands the importance of getting legitimate riders back on the trains and understands the only way to ensure that happens is to provide riders with the confidence that they will be safe. 

He’s doing that by reorganizing the depleted number of officers he has to get more of them on the trains, and to enforce the laws more consistently. This is all part of a “Transit Rider Investment Program” that was unveiled earlier this summer.

However, Chief Morales remains in a tough spot personnel wise. Despite improving incentives for retaining existing officers and recruiting new ones, Metro Transit police are struggling to keep up. 

The chief painfully described the dilemma he and other law enforcement leaders face when trying to recruit young people into the profession,

“Young people see the way police are treated here, and they don’t want to be villainized.”

Metro Transit Police Chief Ernest Morales

Sadly, his observations have included local school districts being less than helpful in opening their doors to the idea of vocational programs involving law enforcement careers. 

I highlighted this terrible trend last year in a piece outing the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers who issued a resolution demanding the school board not implement a program that encouraged Minneapolis students to consider careers in law enforcement. Among a list of reasons they opposed the plan, the Federation stated the plan amounted to attempts “to recruit Minneapolis youth to intern with law enforcement and assimilate into this oppressive and unaccountable institution.”

Our law enforcement officers play critically important roles in ensuring our public safety. We have failed the law enforcement profession in recent years by allowing activist voices to drown out what should be clear and unwavering support for the profession.

That failure is clear in the decline of safety on our light rail system, but it can be seen and felt throughout our state as well. 

A healthy state recognizes such failures and vows never to repeat them. Minnesota has made progress but can’t yet be called healthy in 2023.  Only we can change that.