Blacks and American Indians are far more likely to be ticketed than warned by Metro Transit police for fare evasion, according to an agency review that unearthed “troubling” disparities in the way some minorities are treated by law enforcement on public transit.
The analysis of light-rail and bus passengers was conducted by Metro Transit after the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union submitted a request for public data following several high-profile incidents involving police and people of color earlier this year.
“I think that when [Metro Transit] was compiling data, they realized that the numbers didn’t look all that great, and were showing serious disparities,” said ACLU Legal Director Teresa Nelson. “To their credit, they did their own analysis.”
Data collected from January 2014 through August involving 7,136 arrests and citations indicate that American Indians are 152 percent more likely and black adults are 26 percent more likely to be cited for first-time fare evasion than their white counterparts.
Indians are 93 percent more likely to be arrested rather than warned for all incidents than white adults. And black adults were 38 percent more likely to be arrested.
However, transit police appear to enforce more serious crimes consistently, regardless of race.
On Thursday, Metro Transit officials vowed to do better. “These disparities cannot be ignored,” said General Manager Brian Lamb. “When we’re not meeting expectations, we need to be up front about it and make adjustments.”
Transit officials say they will require more training for transit officers featuring “impartial policing” practices and invoke new processes for treating people with disabilities, including those who may be autistic. But at the same time, they cautioned that “conclusions cannot be drawn about whether bias exists in police enforcement based on the data alone.”
In August, 17-year-old Marcus Abrams of St. Paul was tackled and restrained by Metro Transit police near the Lexington Avenue Green Line light-rail station after he was asked to show identification. Abrams, who has Asperger’s syndrome, was standing near the tracks after working at the Minnesota State Fair.
After Abrams was hospitalized for injuries suffered during the incident, the ACLU and his family called for police to be better trained when dealing with passengers with mental illness and disabilities. On Thursday, Abrams’ mother, Maria Caldwell, said the initiatives taken by Metro Transit seem to be a good start. However, she said her son is still having issues “with trust and people and police,” and continues to battle symptoms related to a traumatic brain injury, as well.
The officer who was involved in the incident was subsequently dismissed.
In addition, the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP asked for an independent investigation after a Metro Transit police officer threw a man to the ground for failing to pay the $1.75 fare for the light rail in July. The incident was caught on cellphone video.
No easy explanation
“This study tells me that we have a problem,” said Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington, who admitted he “doesn’t have an easy or facile explanation how this happens.” Of the 100 full-time Metro Transit police officers, 35 percent are considered “diverse,” up from 5 percent just a few years ago.
Following the study and discussion with the Minneapolis NAACP, Metro Transit police agreed to issue warnings for first-time fare evaders, instead of immediate citations.
The department will also partner with the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Council on Crime and Justice to review its policies and procedures, following with recommendations for the Metropolitan Council to ensure racial equity in policing. After a year, the changes and data will be reviewed again, and the results released to the public, Metro Transit said.
Adam Duininck, chair of the Metropolitan Council, said the “disparity numbers are not acceptable and are something we need to fix.”
The study comes at a time when the regional planning agency has placed a premium on advancing equity in the Twin Cities region it covers — a new Equity Advisory Committee will begin to meet next year.
While saying he’s proud of the way Metro Transit has tackled issues revealed in the study, Duininck said, “there’s got to be a better way to do responsible policing.”