Good cops talk to people

Metro transit chief talks about diversity in policing

Metro Transit officers pose for a photograph after receiving their badges after the Promotions & Swearing In Ceremony in 2014.
Metro Transit officers pose for a photograph after receiving their badges after the Promotions & Swearing In Ceremony in 2014.

The Metro Transit Police Department is Minnesota’s fourth largest jurisdiction — eight counties and 85 cities. But under Chief John Harrington, who was hired to lead it in 2012, its officers and staff are becoming more representative of the population it serves.

“We [Metro Transit] are a community police department,” explained Harrington during an interview at the MSR. But upon his return to Metro Transit, he found the community not well represented there. He had previously worked there in a part-time capacity (1985-87) while on the St. Paul police force, where he rose in the ranks to chief (2004-10).

Chief John Harrington
Chief John Harrington

“I came in the department, and I was the third Black guy there. When you look at who rides mass transit, I think it’s about 50 percent of those who ride transit are people of color and women. There was a disconnect in what made up the police department and who was riding.”

Metro Transit’s top cop noted that the force’s diversity has improved: The number of Blacks at Metro Transit, both full time and part time, increased over five times — from four in 2011 to 22 last year. Latinos doubled from six to 14; Asians increased from two to 11; Somalis from one to five; and Native Americans from zero to one over the four years he’s been there. The number of women has also increased — by nearly four times — during the same time period, from seven in 2011 to 24 in 2015.

The civilian staff has also seen growth in its diversity, up to 75 percent, especially “our pipeline” — the community service officers (CSOs), as well as property clerks and data entry and records personnel, said Harrington. Diversity is what he wants to be yearly evaluated on “doing my annual review,” continued the chief. “You should be looking at whether or not I am successful at this.”

He wanted to replicate the philosophy he learned during his stint across the river under former St. Paul police Chief Bill Finney and during his own time as chief as well. “I learned during my time in St. Paul a few things that had worked pretty well as we tried to push St. Paul to be more diverse.”

He found Metro Transit was “more agreeable because the department is so young,” said Harrington of the 20-year force. “Metro Transit wasn’t resistant when I [would] say I wanted to try some things. You have to be intentional in wanting diversity. It is not simply going to happen. Then, after you find it, nurturing it [is part of] the processes of bringing it into the department, and then retaining it, which is the tricky part.”

The minimum requirement to join Metro Transit is no different than most state law enforcement agencies: a two-year or four-year degree, having served in the military, being able to pass the state licensing test, background checks and psychological tests, and passing the medical exam.

“It’s really about who they are and what they have done in their life more so than X-Y-Z,” stated Harrington. “I need someone who is a great communicator, preferably someone who can communicate in multiple languages. I have found that the city kids I have hired seem to fit better than some of the rural kids that we brought in.”

What also helped, in his opinion, was some tweaking in the application process. “We actually got rid of the written test,” he pointed out. “We did an informal study [and found] we were losing our diversity at the written test — if you didn’t get a 95 on that test, you weren’t going to get seen.

“[So] we made the written test pass/fail so that anybody who passes the [written] test got to the next test, which is an oral panel. I think you really get to figure out who is a good cop. The reality is cops talk to people — my cops more so than other cops.

“My cops mostly are on a train or a bus, so they are surrounded by the people they’re serving,” continued Harrington. “I’m most interested in people who can talk to people.

“We’re finding no shortage of young men and women out there that speak multiple languages that are interested in being cops. Most of those kids grew up in households where English either was the second language or third language spoken. They are more valuable in the inner-city core than some cops that don’t speak but one language.

“I’m looking at balance,” said Harrington. “Do I have a person with good character, good communication skills, and a person who’s got the heart to step in when other people would want to run? If I got those three things, I’ll train them to do the rest.”

However, Harrington said there’s still work needed in diversity at the upper ranks, listing only one female lieutenant and one Black lieutenant out of seven. “The policy stuff doesn’t happen” on the street “but at my level and a couple of levels below me. What I am working on right now is how I can increase the diversity at that top level of the department.”

Harrington said he hopes to hold community listening sessions this year. “We are anxious on having that conversation with our community: What do you need when you are riding the train? What makes a good ride for you?

“We are becoming a large department and becoming a diverse police department.”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to

One Comment on “Good cops talk to people”

  1. Hi my name is Prince samuels.
    Good article and I’m glad that this is happening, but the people who riding these public transportation must be protected and when some get hurt and the police are called they should respond right away instead of picking who to help and who not to help. I’m case I’m seeing medical attention right now.

    On September 8th 2015, I was attacked on the metro transit bus by an unknown man that led me an injury. The bus driver called the police immediately but they never show up. After a long wait without any show by police after a long wait the driver decided to leave and told me to call them report the case. I called back the next day and I was transferred to the dispatcher to explain the attack but no one talk to me to give me or gave the case number. I made several repeated calls without being able to file a complaint – my calls were simply transferred to a dead end.

    Finally, I had to visit the station to deliver a complaint note. I was given an officer who is supposed to make an investigation-but he never did! The officer never picked up my follow up calls not did he call back. Last month the 5th I called , the police station to inquire about progress on the investigation only to be told that the case has been closed after six months. My request to access the case file was declined with the excuse that the attacker is unknown. This statement is false because the whole incidence in caught on security camera.

    I have gotten 3 investigators still cannot give any results and telling me that nothing they can do but will continue looking into the case. The distress I’m going through is really unberable. Even Metro politan council is no help at all. They continue to send me to the same police department that refused to work on my case. I’m thinking the help I will get is to get the federal government involved, but I still have faith in the justice and look forward to getting help very soon instead of anther 6 months. I would love to talk to the Police Chief about my situation. Metro transit did do their jobs.

    Thank you for listening

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