U.S. Department of Transportation To Investigate Civil Rights Complaints Made Against Metro


The U.S. Department of Transportation will be investigating a civil rights complaint against Metro, the federal agency announced on Wednesday. The department issued a letter last Thursday saying that it will look into claims that Metro is handing out a disproportionate number of citations to black riders, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

The complaint was filed by the Labor/Community Strategy Center, which also oversees the Bus Riders Union. Chief among the allegations was that Metro (and law enforcement who patrol the lines) had adopted a "broken window" measure, or the practice of cracking down on minor crimes to, theoretically, engender an atmosphere of lawfulness to prevent the onset of more serious infractions. This concept, perhaps, gained the most traction in New York City during the 1990s, when Police Commissioner William J. Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani implemented a stringent "zero tolerance" and "stop and frisk" approach towards crime. This method has been heavily criticized; while it may have lowered crime rates, it also sent incarceration rates through the roof (it goes without saying that people of color were largely targeted).

In 2013, a federal judge ruled that the stop-and-frisk tactics were unconstitutional. And a 2016 report from the Department of Investigation, a New York Police Department watch group, said that there was no evidence suggesting the method led to a decline in felony crimes, reports the Observer.

The Strategy Center says that officers patrolling the Metro lines—the L.A. County Sheriff's Department is largely responsible for policing Metro areas—have essentially adopted "stop and frisk" policies by cracking down on unpaid fares. According to documents prepared by the Labor/Community Strategy Center, from 2012 to 2015 black riders were the recipient of 50% of all fare evasion citations. They were also the subject of 53% of all arrests in 2015. This is all the more stark when you consider that, as claimed by the Bus Riders Union, blacks made up 19% of rail riders.

"The extreme disproportionality of citations and arrests of black transit riders demonstrates pattern and practice of systemic criminalization and intentional and disparate impact racial discrimination," the union said in a release.

Eric Mann, co-founder of the Bus Riders Union, told LAist that unpaid fares shouldn't be construed as a criminal offense. "As a youth, I would ride the trains in Long Island. First of all, the conductor was not a policeman. And if they caught you without a ticket, they just sold one to you," said Mann. "And if I said I didn't have any money, they'll say 'You'll have to get off on the next stop.' No police, no fine, no criminalization. The assumption in this scenario is that they want you on that train."

The Union says that the crackdown on fare evasion, as well as other practices used by Metro, unfairly target people of color. Mann says the fact that the Department of Justice is looking into the complaint "shows that there's probable cause here" and that they "see enough of a problem to make a major investigation." The organization seeks an end to all "stop and frisk" fare enforcement, the withdrawal of police from MTA trains and buses, as well as an end to all fare collections (the organization says that, especially with the passing of Measure M, the agency already has a big enough budget).

Rick Jager, a spokesperson for Metro, told LAist that the agency is working on "a voluntary resolution with the Labor/Community Strategy Center and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, while the complaint is being assessed." He added that Metro does not have a stop and frisk policy. "No single individual is targeted. All passengers are checked, regardless of their status," said Jager.

Jager also said that Metro is in the process of transitioning sheriff's deputies away from fare enforcement duties, directing them towards more generalized policing on Metro's lines. Fare enforcement duties will be transferred to 77 new "transit security officers," whose primary job will be checking for fare. Jager says that these officers are civilians and won't have the ability to make arrests themselves.

While this falls in line with Mann's proposal that the sheriff's deputies be removed from fare enforcement, it runs counter with his idea that there shouldn't be any punitive consequence for unpaid fares. Mann believes that public transit should be free, and that it could even run on a honor system. "I bet you 80 to 90 percent of passengers will still pay," said Mann, adding that, "Even if it's free, it's not free, because we're paying it through taxes."

Metro, it should be noted, is also in the midst of contract talks with the Sheriff's Department and the LAPD. Currently, the Sheriff's Department is responsible for policing Metro's lines. Metro staff is proposing, however, a new setup in which the lines would be patrolled by not only the Sheriff's Department, but also the LAPD and Long Beach Police Department.