Homicides on public transit are rare, with just eight recorded nationally between 2002 and 2006. But three recent deaths in the Twin Cities have raised concerns about the safety of Metro Transit buses.
The latest was a shooting on a route 74 bus in St. Paul that killed a 16-year-old. Before that, one man died from head injuries after he was pushed off a route 10 bus in Minneapolis. Just days before that, a man was shot on a route 5 bus.
On a recent day, Minneapolis resident Bertha Nelson is waiting for the route 5 bus on Chicago Ave. in south Minneapolis. She takes the 5 at least four times a week, and is no stranger to bus violence.
"I've been on the [route] 21 bus, I've seen people get on beating people up. And I was on the 18 bus when some guy got shot on the bus," Nelson says.
Route 5 runs between the Mall of America and Brooklyn Center, through some of Minneapolis' high-crime neighborhoods. Nelson says she's happy to see more Metro Transit police officers riding the bus.
"I don't know if they can stop everything," Nelson says, "but it might make people think more about doing things they shouldn't."
Metro Transit hopes that putting more uniformed officers on buses will make passengers feel safer. Transit officials say the buses are safe, but they acknowledge recent high-profile violence makes potential customers fearful and less likely to ride.
Farther north along the 5 route, Metro Transit police officer Bruce Larson is waiting for the bus with his partner Leo Castro. They're about to spend their whole shift on the 5.
"What we're watching for is just customers being a problem, people being disrespectful on the bus. It can vary all the way from very loud conversations to discourteous cell phone use," says Larson. "Most of what we're dealing with is just a failure to abide by the Golden Rule, and not give other people the same respect that we expect ourselves."
Larson and Castro are part of a new $2.4 million bus safety program. The program includes a five-fold increase in the number of hours officers spend on buses, and eight new officers whose full-time job will be to ride the bus.
The officers get on a bus crowded with evening commuters. It's the tail end of rush hour. Every seat is taken and riders stand in the aisles.
“I've been on the [route] 21 bus, I've seen people get on beating people up. And I was on the 18 bus when some guy got shot on the bus.”Bertha Nelson, bus rider
The officers wait for all other passengers to board before getting on. Then they separate. Larson stands near the driver, looking back, and Castro stands at the back door, facing passengers.
They observe quietly but their presence is loud. Both men are tall, muscular and physically imposing. No one is rowdy, and people talk quietly or sit and stare out the window. Some read.
One of the passengers, Shawn from north Minneapolis, says the cops make her feel better about her 11-year old son's safety.
"It's much better, because a lot of times when I can't pick him up he's able to ride the bus going home by himself," says Shawn.
She recalls an incident where the uniform's impact was immediate.
"One guy, he cursed at my son and the cops got on and the problem was solved," she says.
In addition to hiring more cops, Metro Transit is upgrading its existing bus cameras to a new digital system, and all new buses will come with five cameras placed strategically to give drivers a better view.
This multi-million dollar investment comes at a time when ridership is up, and overall crime is down. In Minneapolis, violent crime is down by more than 20 percent, and transit crime is down by more than 7 percent.
But not all bus riders are happy with the added police presence. One of them is Shea, a teenage girl from north Minneapolis. She says she sees transit officers overreact to normal teen behavior.
"They can be loud because that's what kids are going to do. That's just the hyperactivity of teenagers," says Shea. "But that really doesn't give you a reason to pick on them or harrass them or mess with them too much."
Shea says officers unfairly target teenagers. But officer Bruce Larson says he and his partner don't respond to anything except how someone's acting.
"It has nothing to do with profiling. It doesn't matter what race you are, what color you are, it doesn't matter to us. What we focus on is your behavior," says Larson.
The driver on Larson and Castro's bus, Wayne Riddle, says most of the trouble on his bus does come from young people and from intoxicated riders.
Riddle works the 4 p.m. to midnight shift on the route 5, and says his passengers seem much calmer with officers on the bus. He says it makes his job easier, too.
"It's always nice to see them get on the bus. It helps keep everything calm, keep everybody safe," says Riddle. "I think we'd like to see more of them more often, and more of them in north Minneapolis where I believe they're needed."
The numbers seem to suggest that the increased police presence is already having an effect. From mid-March to mid-May, arrests for transit crime are up and assaults are down compared to the same period last year.
Metro Transit plans to make this safety program permanent. Part of the funding for it will come from a recent change in state transportation funding, and from more paying customers.
Ridership is up almost 4 percent through April and jumped nearly 6 percent last month, the first month of the increased police presence.