July 2-PAC: Transit Police

There was no meeting in April (event) or May (2nd Pct Open House).  June meeting was a feedback session.

July2-PAC:  Issue: People using the Transit System for shelter.  Lt. Mario Ruberto, presenter.

The meeting was called to order at 6:15; 16 people attending.
The Metro Transit Police are charged with policing issues specific to our transit system.  Along with aiding the Police Departments in 7 counties served by Metro Transit, this public service has taken on a special  area of service that has been getting a lot of press and media coverage lately.  The Metro Transit  Police is developing an outreach program to and for homeless residents in our area.  MTC Homeless Outreach and its focus team, the Homeless Action Team were described by Lt. Mario Ruberto, CSO,  our speaker.
Lt. Ruberto was a Hennepin County paramedic for twenty years  and switched to Transit Police 12+ years ago. About that time, there was an increase in homeless people taking shelter in the Transit system.  Those people would be trespassed, need shelter and come back in, be arrested. This was a cycle.  Lt. Ruberto asked if there were any tracking statistics, and  was asked to create them.  With training and experience as a paramedic, he  soon realized many of the people being arrested were actually in crisis, possibly dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, chronic health problems — issues he’d been trained to recognize as an EMT.  Any one of these issues can lead to homelessness and repeated police contact.  But the people who were being cycled through the system had no access to help, no way to stop the cycle. Many repeaters had more than one of those issues to handle and about 11% actually had all three.
Compounding the problem, despite having little or no medical training, first line responders had to decide where to take these people:  jail, hospital,  and detox were the only options.   People riding for shelter can’t stay on transit property or the MTPolice will just be called about them again.  During one winter, transit dealt with 362 individuals, most of them over and over again. Numbers of incidents are rising:  in 2015 Police received 1273 calls;  in 2018, that number was 2770.
Former MTPD Chief Harrington expected people receiving promotions to take on one “POP” project, (Problem Oriented Policing).  Lt. Ruberto chose to create a homeless outreach program that would decriminialize homelessness and address some of the problems he observed during field training.
When police do respond to complaints and take people in, the city is responsible for a other issues.  Items having little or no cash value are very important to the people who have little else.  The police must inventory the non-perishable belongings and return them to their owners when they are released.  A class action suit in Fresno about this issue cost the city $2.35 Million in damages.  Honolulu was sued over its trespass statue for being too broad; our MTC operated under a similar trespass law.  Is it right that one trespass notice effectively bans people from the only means of transportation they have?  Additionally, there is no realistic way to enforce that notice over all transit properties in 7 counties.  The current approach is to issue a geographic restriction (i.e. The Greenline or Rte #22) which limits the boundaries but is not enforceable, either.


The “Bermuda Triangle” is a name for MSP’s largest homeless camp.  The trains from Union Depot (St. Paul) to Target Field (Mpls) to the MOA and back to Union Depot form a triangle.  These trains are shelter for at least 180-275 people every night, depending on the weather.  The 2018-19  winter was colder and the number of riders rose to 350 people.  Those numbers make the Transit system the 2nd largest shelter for homeless in Hennepin County, second only to Salvation Army shelters.  When the Super Bowl committee charged the MOA and MPS skyways to clean up for the game week, they did by closing access, forcing more people into the Transit system.  Some homeless shelters routinely fill up long before everyone has a shelter, so the shelters give the folks they must turn away bus tokens so they’ll have a warm place to be.  When this happens, the Transit system count goes up by another 50 or more people.
There are many safety issues that rise from “transit as shelters”:  staff safety, passenger safety, safety for the people who are homeless.  Some people who ride transit at night who actually have safe shelter; they ride because they are predators.

Met Council Internal Solutions in progress:   The Met Transit PD has formed a special team, the Homeless Action Team (HAT).  The team consists of 4 officers and 2 sergeants and 2 CSOs (Community Service Officers).

HAT’s protocols and strategies are based on evolving best practices research.  HAT focuses on BOTH customer service complaints AND on community concerns about health and safety.
HAT Team training includes special training topics:   1) Crisis Intervention and de-escalation techniques; 2) Outreach worker certification; 3)  Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) assessor training; 4) Trauma-informed interviewing; 5) Understanding addiction (includes Narcan training); 6)  Building community trust.  The program and all training are based on one tenet:  Arrest is not a solution.  (EQ: For more info about HMIS:  https://hmismn.org/ )
The HAT team  works from 10PM to 8AM, Sunday night through the Thursday AM rush hour.  Because social workers/social services don’t work overnight, the HAT team members approach the people who appear to need intervention, do an assessment to determine what a person’s primary needs are, set up the initial steps for an intake, and then hand the client off to the most appropriate social service agency when those offices open. The HAT team does track individuals, because if HAT can prove that a person has been unsheltered for three nights, they can issue a voucher that will get this person into a safe place.  The team is also trained to aggregate data in the Homeless Management Information System.  The HMIS database is confidential and used to determine how homeless populations are served across the U.S.  It is a data sort, not a diagnostic application.
Lt. Rubertos and his team are planning the next steps for HAT internal development.  HAT wants to:   1) Hire additional case workers to do the serious work of getting people to stable situations;  2) Establish an internship program for master’s level college students who need intern hours to complete their degree in social work; these people will do initial case assessments under supervision;  3) Review and strengthen the HAT Code of Conduct policies and post them;  4) Examine the use of the all-day Transit pass: is it being used as intended or not? 5) Create education plans for transit employees, transit PD, and for all riders.
What makes it difficult:  Homeless transit riders have many barriers to stable housing, including mental health issues, criminal history, poor housing rental history.  Another barrier HAT discovered that people who are in the system could be assigned to multiple services, a needlessly confusing waste of effort and money.  HAT is  moving people to single stream services (same services, better delivery) During the brief time that the Met Council has had an integrated approach, more than 30 families have been housed and another 36 referrals are in process.  One person is in charge of coordination, and the service teams meet regularly to work out solutions.
Externally: HAT is developing a housing partnership.  The Met Council was awarded 89 housing vouchers by HUD.  These vouchers provide financial help to transit riders who are homeless and who have disabilities.   The vouchers pay some 70% of housing costs, and the recipient  pays the rest. [Question: some people with vouchers still can’t find housing!  Answer: People may have issues that make conventional housing hard for them to find.  HAT is looking for unconventional housing solutions.]  We have to accept that there are some people who do choose to be on the street:  some are not yet able to handle independent living; some shelters have no place for married couples; many shelters won’t admit people with dogs even though the dogs are  stabilizers for people. These would need some of the “unconventional solutions”.
Short term solution improvements:  “Winter Safe Space” shelter in St. Paul is open November through May.  Established shelters close intake at 8PM because they also have a limited amount of space.  Winter Safe Space is open from 10PM to 9AM, offering 62 beds at a cost of $400,000 divided between Ramsey County, St. Paul, and philanthropic partners.  (something about Metro Mobility buses)  HAT has 25 reserved beds in that place and is hoping to reserve some beds on the Minneapolis side, as well.
Frequent Faces (pilot program) is starting to coalesce.  The vision is a partnership among various agencies like Catholic Charities, the East Metro Crisis Alliance, SPPD, SPFD and others.  The current vision:  Identify the top 30 resources users.  These folks, who use the Green Line trains as a shelter, have been reported on 740 contacts, resulting in 197 citations, 148 bookings, 249 EMS transports to ERs over the last 12 months!   Clearly the social and dollar costs are enormous.    The FF program will use the “safe-haven model” to offer social, legal and medical services to these 30 individuals diverting them from emergency rooms and jail, to find long term solutions so they can leave the cycle.  So far this has been presented to Health Partners and Regions Hospital, looking to develop a project model.
Coming soon:  HAT will roll out its first Mobile Assessment Vehicle (MAV) the first week in August.  This is a mini-bus that is packed with electronics and other gear: computer access to department records, printers, and more at two workstations (one for police and one for social workers).   With diagnostic equipment and an exam table on board, the team will be able to do field exams and assessments, replace lost IDs, and a great deal more to move  people quickly  to a safe solution.
Summary:  This is an ongoing challenge.  The situation we have now is the result of society pushing people out of sight, rather than working together to create solutions that benefit all of us.

One of our attenders contacted Lt. Ruberto after the meeting, reporting that an acquaintance  feels apprehensive riding the bus late at night.  Lt Ruberto replied replied in part:  Most overnight issues are on light rail because bus drivers can call the police and pull over if that’s needed.  Generally, violators run off if they know the police have been called.  If  a crime was committed, Transit Police pull the video and send pictures to MPD, SPPD and Transit PD.  Sometimes they have an ID just minutes later and the target can be  picked up.    Additionally, there is a transit app, Text For Safety, that sends a message to dispatch immediately from your Smartphone.  MTPD will respond, pull the video, or assign a cop ride-along if the situation calls for that. Check here: https://www.metrotransit.org/textforsafety


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