Updated: February 09, 2021 10:23 PM
Created: February 09, 2021 05:39 PM
Metro transit employees, leaders and lawmakers are renewing calls for improved safety on light rail trains and buses a year after a rise in crime on the public transportation system first brought the issue to a head in the Twin Cities.
While the total number of crimes is down across the light rail system, Metropolitan Council Chairman Charlie Zelle acknowledges the decline is largely due to the pandemic. He says safety remains the agency's "number one concern."
"Certainly, we have less crime because we have less riders," Zelle said.
Zelle was called to the State Capitol last February to address a surge in violent crime that had lawmakers demanding changes and more police presence.
Zelle says Metro Transit has increased transit police overtime, added more staffing for the agency's "text for safety program," and installed "live" security cameras to help police respond to crime as it happens.
But some Metro Transit workers say it's not enough.
Likelesh Benti was cleaning a train at Target Field Platform One when she says an irate woman assaulted her last month.
"She kept yelling at me and then she pulled my ponytail," Benti said. "She pulled me, I couldn't even (keep) my balance. And she put me down on the ground."
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Benti said the woman had taken her "grabber" tool and was going to hit her with it when a train operator intervened and stopped the attack. Transit police arrested the woman, Kayla Shay Magee, who is charged with fifth-degree assault.
"It's just scary," Benti said. "It's not safe."
Assaults continued to be a problem on the Green Line in particular last year despite the significant drop in ridership, according to a 5 INVESTIGATES review of incident data.
Cases of vandalism on the line --- which connects St. Paul and Minneapolis ---actually increased from 2019.
Leatha Falls, a longtime Metro Transit employee, says more needs to be done.
"I've done my job and I've tried to do it to the best of my ability, but I'm scared," Falls said.
Zelle is among those calling again for the addition of non-sworn employees to help monitor safety on trains and to alert transit police about problems. Zelle first proposed creating a transit ambassador program in January 2020.
Lawmakers heard passionate testimony from train operators and others, but legislation stalled at the Capitol.
A bill reintroduced by Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, last week would authorize the creation of non-sworn "transit enforcement officials" to try to limit fare evasion.
"Metro Transit representatives, inspectors – we care less about the name and more about the function," Zelle said. "They're there to be a presence, to help create an atmosphere that's welcoming, a perception of safety, and safety itself."
Similar to language in Koznick's bill, Zelle is also calling for reducing fines for fare evasion by giving inspectors and police the power to write administrative, rather than criminal, citations.
Koznick says he's hopeful his proposed reforms will get more support than they did a year ago.
"There's never any guarantees at the Capitol. However, I think there is genuine support for it," Koznick said.
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