June 09--Two Metro Transit police officers made their way down the aisle of a light-rail train, checking to make sure passengers had paid their fare, yet they were doing more than that.
"Keeping an eye on everybody around us, staying vigilant," said officer Carrie Witschorik.
They were working in Minneapolis on the Blue Line, but officers soon will be keeping the peace on and around the Green Line. The new line poses a different set of challenges.
Where much of the Blue Line runs along a highway, the Green Line will run down what had been a gritty urban street and through some of the poorest neighborhoods in St. Paul. Keeping riders safe will be key to the line's success.
Metro Transit has installed cameras on trains and at stations, hired someone to study crime data to look for trouble spots and beefed up its police ranks -- 22 officers will be working on the new light-rail line that connects downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis. The trains start operating Saturday.
"There's no heavy crime pattern I foresee in the future," Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington said. "We want to be prepared. ... We want folks who are on the train or waiting on the platforms to feel safe and see a visible police presence on the line."
A group of bus riders and community leaders interviewed this past week said they were not sure what to expect when the trains start running. Mike Glasgow, owner of Glasgow Automotive at University Avenue and Grotto Street, said he is worried.
Glasgow wasn't a fan of the light rail coming through University Avenue to begin with. He thinks the stations also will be places where people who aren't riding trains hang out, "because the bus stops certainly are, especially in the bad weather."
"Is the crime because of the light rail? Absolutely not," Glasgow said. "Is it connected to the light rail? Absolutely yes. ...
(The) light rail didn't create the problem, but it's helping it become even more evident."
When Metro Transit police officer Larry Wright was patrolling the Blue Line in Minneapolis last month, he explained that one of the things he is looking for is loitering. Officers say they can move people along or cite them if they're spending time at light-rail stations without tickets.
"It's a paid-fare zone, so we're making sure that everybody has valid fare, and we're just being a presence," Wright said.
The department is boosting its ranks to make sure that presence is noticed.
Metro Transit Police opened an East Command division near University and Cleveland avenues in St. Paul last year for its Green Line operations. Metro Transit budgeted about $1.6 million annually for the 22 additional officers.
In all, the agency has 94 full-time officers and 106 part-time officers. All the part-timers are officers in other cities.
Metro Transit estimates there will be 40,000 riders per day on the Green Line by 2030. St. Paul police have been talking about what they might expect with the influx of commuters.
"We've identified that as a potential target-rich environment ... with a lot of items of value" such as laptops and smartphones, said St. Paul Police Senior Cmdr. Paul Iovino, who heads the force's Western District, which covers much of the Green Line.
Cellphone thefts have been a focus for Metro Transit police, said the agency's spokesman, John Siqveland.
Where there were 26 such cases a month for January-April of 2013, there were 18 a month for the same time period this year. Arrests are being made in about a third of the cases.
St. Paul police will hand out cards with safety tips around the Green Line, Iovino said. The cards remind people to be aware of their surroundings and keep a watchful eye on their belongings.
Iovino said St. Paul police don't plan to change their staffing because of the Green Line, but "if we see an increase in crime or quality-of-life issues, we'll evaluate and reallocate."
Metro Transit is moving into "hot-spot policing." They've hired a former St. Paul police sergeant to conduct crime analysis, and they will use the data to decide where officers should be deployed and what they should be focusing on, said Metro Transit Police Capt.
Jim Franklin, who oversees East Command.
"We're trying to anticipate, prevent things," he said.
CRIME IS DOWN
Mike Glasgow takes a long view of crime in St. Paul. Glasgow Automotive has been around since 1946, and he's owned it since the mid-1970s. In those decades, he's seen crime ebb and flow in the area, and it feels to him like "it's raising its ugly head again."
St. Paul police statistics, though, show crime is down in the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods, the areas around Glasgow's shop. From the start of the year through the end of May, Frogtown reports of major crimes were down about 6 percent from the same period in 2011; Summit-University reports were down 15 percent.
The numbers don't match Glasgow's perception, though.
He arrived at work June 2 and found glass all over the sidewalk in front of his business. It came from the bus shelter where a 15-year-old boy was shot.
Iovino said he understood the shooting to be gang-related. "We haven't had a lot of issues like that in the Western District," Iovino said, adding that the case didn't have a connection to the light rail.
Glasgow talked to a Metro Transit police sergeant last week about his concerns, and the sergeant "had ideas about increasing their surveillance and making life better for the residents around here, and a few more sets of eyes," Glasgow said. "That's what we need."
Metro Transit police reports for 10 categories of crime on Blue Line trains, platforms and along the line increased by 120 percent comparing 2009 to 2013. Ridership increased by 3 percent, to 10.2 million, from 2009 to 2013.
The raw numbers were fairly small, but the biggest percentage increases were for weapons reports (from six in 2009 to 20 in 2013), domestic incidents (from two to 26), fight reports (20 to 59) and robberies (13 to 30).
The increase in robberies is part of the trend with cellphones and electronics being taken, Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland said. Overall, Metro Transit police has increased its ranks, and more officers means more of them making reports, he said.
Crime did not increase when Charlotte, N.C., debuted its light-rail service in 2007, according to a University of North Carolina at Charlotte study. According to a summary of its paper published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, they found property crimes decreased when station locations were announced and remained "relatively stable" after the light rail began operating.
Metro Transit worked to build safety elements into its light-rail stations, Franklin said, including:
--Security cameras. Staff that works around the clock in Metro Transit's rail control center in Minneapolis can pan, tilt and zoom them.
--Public safety announcements. Recorded messages announce when the next train is coming and to stay away from the tracks. Rail control center staff also can make live announcements, such as severe weather warnings or delayed trains.
--Digital message signs. The messages can be changed at any time to get information to passengers.
--Emergency-call boxes. They're a direct line to the rail control center. People can use them to call for help or to report suspicious activity.
There are 10 security cameras per train car -- eight inside the vehicle and a front-facing camera on each side of the car.
"Those cameras are a great resource for us in an investigative capacity, in solving issues, solving crimes," Franklin said.
Metro Transit will have uniformed and undercover officers on and around the trains in St. Paul, along with officers on bicycles and in squad cars. The department will use a geographic beat concept, where officers are responsible for a smaller segment of the light-rail line and can become familiar with their areas, Franklin said.
"I want my cops to not only know the Green Line and Green Line operations but also the communities up and down the line that we serve," Franklin said.
Vaughn Larry, Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corp. crime prevention coordinator, said he is not sure what to expect with the Green Line as it relates to crime.
"We don't know if it's going to translate to people coming from Minneapolis or other parts of the city," Larry said.
The neighborhood group is "trying to be proactive so that stuff doesn't happen," Larry said, including hosting "Summer of Peace" community events, which started 10 years ago.
"We want to welcome folks that are going to contribute to the community," he said. "If you're not going to contribute positively, you really shouldn't come to this neighborhood."
C.J. Sinner and Elizabeth Hernandez contributed to this report. Mara H. Gottfried can be reached at 651-228-5262. Follow her at twitter.com/MaraGottfried.
A key focus of Metro Transit officers working a light-rail detail is ensuring people have paid their fare.
If it's a first offense, an officer may give the person a citation or issue a warning, Metro Transit officials said. Habitual fare evaders are likely to receive a misdemeanor citation, which carries a $180 fine, and can be banned from the transit system for a month.
Metro Transit police officers check fares thousands of times each week on average on the Blue Line. Based on those checks, the Blue Line compliance rate is 99 percent.
-- Mara H. Gottfried
ON THE GREEN LINE FAST FACT
Several of the trains along the Green Line have become moving billboards. Entire cars have been wrapped with advertisements. The base rate for one rail car, for one month, is about $25,000. That is negotiable, folks say. Advertising, though, won't come close to covering expenses. Of the $35 million preliminary 2015 budget to operate the Green Line, just 2 percent will come from advertising; 25 percent will likely be from passenger fares while the bulk of the cost will be taxpayer support.
Copyright 2014 - Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.