Video of Metro Transit officer sparks dialogue

A viral video captured a Metro Transit police officer asking a light rail passenger if he was in the country legally. The man who shot the video, Minneapolis artist Ricardo Levins Morales, told Fox 9 he posted it to start a conversation.

In response to the incident, Metro Transit has launched an internal investigation. Metro Transit police chief said it is not the practice of the agency to ask about the immigration status of riders.

Levins Morales said he was not looking for clicks or likes, but was trying to do the right thing. He hoped the video would become a teachable moment.

In the video, the officer is heard questioning a man, "What's your name? That’s not the one you gave me. Do you have a state ID? Are you here illegally?”

At that point, Levins Morales decided he needed to do more than just chronicle the moment.

“Are you guys authorized to act as immigration police?” Levins Morales is heard asking the officer.

“No, not necessarily,” responded the officer.

“Then I would stay out of that. That’s very touchy legal territory,” Levins Morales told the officer.

Levins Morales said the officer was checking to ensure passengers had paid their fare on the Blue Line train from Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport when he approached the young man. Levins Morales then started recording the encounter on his cell phone.

“I didn’t really think about it,” he said. “I think we live in a time when it’s really important to stand up for one another.”

Since he posted the video on Friday, it has been viewed more than half a million times, prompting the attention of media outlets across the country.

“I don’t want the story to be about me,” said Levins Morales. “It’s really about a much larger issue. It’s not even about that one transit officer, and that is what I’d like people to be thinking about.”

The larger issue he referenced is how involved local law enforcement should be in immigration.

Teresa Nelson, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said the actions of the officer in the video is an example of what not to do.

“I was tremendously disappointed to see this,” she said. “This is something we’ve really worked to encourage. For every department around the state to have policies that specifically ban this kind of thing. Because it destroys the relationship between police and the immigrant communities that they serve.”

A quick look around Levin Morales’ art studio will show any visitor how he encourages action in the face of injustice. He’s grateful his quick thinking resulted in Metro Transit examining the issue.

“Saying they're going to look into it is a great way to start,” he said. “It would probably be irresponsible to do anything else. What comes of that, I don't know. What should come of that I don’t even know except I would hope for a wider conversation.”

The Metro Transit police chief also said the agency’s policy states that the officers are not trained or empowered to act as immigration authorities.

Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington released the following statement on May 27:

Metro Transit remains committed to ensuring its officers protect our communities and act in accordance with the high standards expected of them. Our policies and procedures reflect our commitment that our officers will not act as immigration officers.

On May 23rd, Metro Transit first became aware that an officer questioned a rider about his immigration status. Immediately, our focus turned to ensuring that our officers fully understand and adhere to our policy regarding immigration status. The policy has been updated to explicitly state that Metro Transit officers will “ensure equal enforcement of the law and equal service to all persons regardless of their immigration status.” We also are working to reestablish the trust that was broken by this isolated incident.

As our internal investigation proceeded, we understood that Vences-Lopez had been released from the custody of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. Believing that he was free and scheduled for a June Hennepin County court appearance, our goal was to explore options for him, such as the possibility of some diversion, rather than a court date.

We learned on the evening of Friday, May 25th that Vences-Lopez was in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and was scheduled for deportation. Vences-Lopez was first brought to the Hennepin County Adult Detention Center on Sunday, May 14 for fare evasion. There was no reference to his immigration status in the police reports, nor did MTPD notify ICE or any other agency of any immigration-related concerns.

As is standard procedure, he was placed in the custody of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. We now know that on May 16th, three days before the video of the interaction was posted, he was placed in ICE custody.

We continue to reach out to community partners to notify them of updated information. We are also working to address the issues raised by community members. The officer seen in the video is no longer an employee of the Metro Transit Police Department. We have initiated a process for posting the Metro Transit Police Department’s manual online, making it publicly accessible.

Metro Transit officers come into contact with thousands of riders on a daily basis. We strongly value our relationship with all of the communities we serve and fully understand the importance of our riders’ need to feel confident that they can interact with our officers without fear. The image of a single officer’s questioning immigration status is not reflective of, nor does it represent, the practices and procedures of Metro Transit officers