What happens to a Twin Cities transit rider when he or she is caught not paying for the ride? A Metro Transit report issued last week acknowledged what communities of color have long suspected: Too often, the answer depends on the color of the rider’s skin.
Black adults are 26 percent more likely to be issued a citation — a $180 fine rather than a warning — than white adults are for a first-time fare evasion, the report said. Compared with first-time fare evaders who are white, American Indian adults are 152 percent more likely to be cited rather than warned. Blacks and Indians are also more likely to be arrested rather than cited or warned for other low-level offenses. Those differences largely disappear for serious incidents aboard the Green, Blue and Northstar rail lines and Metro Transit buses.
While the full circumstances surrounding arrests and citations are not factored into those numbers, they are troubling. To Transit Police Chief John Harrington — a former St. Paul chief of police and state senator — they say “we have a problem.” Racial gaps this large tell him that communities of color have reason to question whether his officers are “guardians for all of our riders,” 44 percent of whom were nonwhite in 2014.
Racial disparities in policing have been a too-common story this year, spawning protests in Minneapolis and around the country on a scale reminiscent of the civil rights movement of a half-century ago. The examination of Metro Transit’s policing was instigated by an inquiry from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has asked for similar reviews elsewhere.
What’s noteworthy is Metro Transit’s prompt and straightforward response. Harrington and other Metro Transit leaders willingly undertook the study and, upon receiving its results, announced immediate steps aimed at eliminating unwanted racial differences.
Most significant among the actions Harrington announced on Dec. 17 is a systemwide return to a policy employed on the Green Line during its first six months of operation: All first-time fare evaders will be issued a formal warning, not a citation. In addition, Metro Transit police will receive more training in dealing with diverse populations, including those with disabilities and those who speak languages other than English. Already in his three years as chief, Harrington — himself African-American — has presided over dramatic diversification of his force. It’s now 35 percent female or nonwhite, up from 5 percent in 2012.
Ideally, no one would ever attempt to use the transit system without paying, and studies have shown that the vast majority of riders comply with fare rules. But one study earlier this year found fare-evasion rates comparatively high on the Green Line among riders who transferred to the line from a bus and failed to swipe their Go-To fare card at the rail station. That suggests that more public education about transit use is in order. Harrington noted that fare evasion is less frequent in Minneapolis than elsewhere, likely because Minneapolis high schools issue Go-To cards to students and offer instruction on their use. The chief wants to explore extending that practice to St. Paul.
There’s likely more to the transit policing story than this report reveals. For example, it did not indicate what share of those issued citations or arrested were homeless at the time of the incident and using the train or bus as a de facto shelter. Harrington suspects that accounts for a sizable share of citations. A remedy for that problem has to involve a warm, safe alternative to riding a bus or train through the night.
A deeper dive into transit policing data seems in order, with an eye toward improving the transit experience for all riders. Metro Transit contemplates a series of community meetings to do just that, and has asked the nonprofit Council on Crime and Justice to offer an independent review as well. Those are the actions of an agency for whom a commitment to equitable public service is more than just lip service.