As Metro Prepares to Approve New Policing Contract, A Reminder that Criminalization of Poverty at a Discounted Price is No Bargain

The Rosa Parks station in Watts/Willowbrook, looking southward along the Blue Line. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The Rosa Parks station in Watts/Willowbrook, looking southward along the Blue Line. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

On Thursday, the Metro board is expected to approve a multi-agency contract that would see the L.A. and Long Beach Police Departments take over much of the responsibility of safety and security on transit from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. As the board prepares for this decision, it seems like a good time to remind both Metro and our law enforcement agencies that the passengers that have the greatest dependence on Metro are the ones who need safe passage the most.

And right now, they’re the ones who are least likely to feel like that is what they are getting.

My first inkling that this was the case, in my official capacity as a Streetsblog reporter, that is, was within the first week of my taking the job five years ago. It had started raining hard just as I was leaving Watts, so I hopped on a packed Blue Line train with my bike and headed to the space between cars to try to get out of folks’ way.

The car was unusually quiet. Then a white Sheriff’s deputy standing behind me spoke up.

What was someone like me doing there? I didn’t seem like I belonged in Watts.

A car full of black and brown faces turned and glanced up at me expectantly.

If residents I meet ask me that – which they almost always do – I’m more than happy to answer. I’m an outsider to their community and I feel like they have a right to know.

When an officer asks you that in a packed train he is patrolling, he is saying something about how he sees the people he is supposed to be protecting and serving. Spoiler alert: it is not particularly flattering to those people.

I smiled awkwardly and answered politely. Which seems to have made him think that he had now found a sympathetic ear.

Loudly and without any sort of inhibition, he began to talk about the young black man he and a few other deputies were taking into custody. They had done a warrant check on him and he had come up dirty.

I stole a glance at the youth who was flanked by three white officers. He was probably no more than 18 or so and, upon hearing mention of his plight, he began staring at his shoes with rather intense fascination.

I nodded slowly and said nothing.

But my new friend wasn’t done.

He went on at great length about how he patrolled “his” train, how he kicked off people he thought didn’t belong there, how he always knew who was trouble, and how he never took any nonsense from anyone.

Nobody messed with “his” train, he said triumphantly.

Gesturing toward another young black man dressed in all black, wearing a do-rag, and shifting uncomfortably on his feet near the door, the officer announced, “That guy’s a drug dealer…When I see him, I always tell him, ‘Get off my train.'”

More people began taking an intense fascination in their shoes.

Mercifully, the doors sprang open. The young man locked eyes with me, shrugged, and hopped off.

The sizing up of the rest of the passengers continued for what seemed like an eternity. My new friend had a lot of thoughts about who was a criminal and he wasn’t afraid to let those thoughts tumble directly from his brain out the unfiltered front door of his mouth. Nor did he seem to care about who heard them, which was just as well. By this time, people had literally stopped breathing so they could hear what he was saying while trying to make themselves as invisible as possible.

Finally, the moment came for the officers to yank their young charge to his feet and shuffle him off the train.

As the doors closed finally behind the officers, the car erupted. People actually jumped out of their seats.

“Oh my lord in heaven!” exclaimed a woman seated just ahead of me. “Thank God he didn’t run a check on me! I got four warrants out!”

Others concurred, expressing gratitude that they had not been targeted, disgust at having gotten confirmation of what they always thought officers were thinking about them and the community, and fear that the officers would come back for more. Still others shared stories of their own unhappy encounters with officers where they felt they had been bullied, disrespected and demeaned, hassled, hit with what they considered bogus tickets, or arrested for resisting arrest and then never charged.

And while you might be inclined to wonder whether it isn’t better that the officers are taking folks off the train with outstanding warrants, consider for a moment the range of non-violent offenses (in particular, unpaid citations) that can trigger a warrant.

Then consider the extent to which South Central Los Angeles has historically been overpoliced.*

My own efforts to track the harassment of black and brown folks means I hear everything from people getting ticketed for disorderly conduct, to not having lights on their bikes in the middle of the day, to riding their bike on the sidewalk (something that is neither illegal nor something one particular person I know was physically able to have been doing, considering he had just broken his ankle), to littering things that happened to be on the ground as they walked by. More often than not, the tickets seem to be a way to justify the stop, the hassling, and the illegal search that often went along with it. For youth in particular, these tickets are often very upsetting. And if someone is unable to pay, unable to show up in court to contest it, or upset enough to not pay the ticket on principle – all three of which seem to be common among the youth I speak with – then those tickets turn into warrants. Which means that the next time they get stopped for a fare issue or some other infraction, justified or not, and a warrant check is performed, they’re in trouble.

Finally, consider how transit-dependent so many of these folks are, and how transit makes them easy pickings.

Data released as part of an inquiry into potential civil rights violations by Metro shows alarmingly high numbers of arrests of young black men. Overall, African Americans comprise about 19 percent of rail ridership, but are nearly 60 percent of those arrested. Back when I had that encounter with the Sheriff’s deputy at the end of 2011, that meant that LASD was arresting around 7,000 black people a year, largely along the Blue Line. Arrests have dropped significantly since then (as have citations), but the fact that the percentage of black and brown folks arrested on transit has remained both rather consistent over the years and so disproportionate to their ridership numbers suggests that we’re criminalizing poverty.

It also feels like we’re criminalizing poverty.

Sheriffs’ cars parked at Mariachi Plaza or on the plaza itself at Soto and aggressively chasing away skateboarders, officers timing patrols to coincide with school hours, officers boarding trains at every other stop, and (occasionally) beefy white officers in wacky plainclothes outfits aggressively demanding TAP cards from folks of color – it all feels like criminalization and intimidation.

It also looks like criminalization of poverty: if you’ve ever seen a black or brown youth stopped for fare evasion, then you’ve likely seen that youth be treated as if he were a dangerous suspect – asked to face the wall, spread their legs, and submit to a search. Occasionally they’re cuffed. On other occasions they’re detained for lengthy periods of time. All because they failed to pay a $1.75 fare or committed some other minor infraction.

These kinds of practices serve to confirm the fears of casual riders, particularly those of privilege, that transit is unsafe and many of the people on it are dangerous. Because why else would people be subjected to that kind of treatment if they weren’t dangerous?

Unfortunately, discussion of these kinds of practices and their impact on Metro’s core ridership seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. Instead, official conversations around the law enforcement contract have tended to focus on whether Metro was getting its money’s worth out of the Sheriffs and the extent to which the multi-agency contract would offer Metro “more security for less dollars,” as Metro CEO Phil Washington put it.

Should the multi-agency contract be approved, there will likely be some lag time as the relevant law enforcement agencies shift gears to take on their new responsibilities. I hope that they, along with Metro, will invest some serious time and resources in revisiting what “more security” for all – especially those who rely on Metro most – really looks like during that time.

Because greater criminalization of poverty at a discounted price is not the bargain Metro riders are looking for.

Find the Metro Board agenda and relevant documents for tomorrow’s meeting here.


*For one of the best overviews of what policing and race relations have looked and felt like throughout the years in South Central Los Angeles, please watch the first two films from Ezra Edelman’s series, O.J. Simpson: Made in America. Seriously. Watch them. They’re incredible.

  • Matt

    We’ll gladly take more security on the Expo Line if you don’t want it on the Blue. I hear from a lot of people the Blue Line is now the Wild West and they are afraid to ride vs. 5-6 years ago. The fact that ridership has tumbled on the Blue Line attests to some of this. Also, not paying the fare is just plain stealing. It is no different than shoplifting.

  • I wonder if it’s possible to do community service instead of paying a fine for fare evasion. At least that would give people a chance not to fall into a vicious cycle of mounting fines and run ins with the law.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    There was a time in my early adulthood when I had a couple of outstanding warrants in a couple of different counties. Yes, I behaved myself to avoid being hassled by the police; but I knew it was my fault that I had the warrants. I did not blame society for my personal actions and was fully aware of the consequences of my actions. (Yes, there is such a thing as poor Caucasian youth.)

    Every time I see one of these articles, I remember an incident that happened many years ago. Back in the days of paper tickets, a friend and I took the Red and Blue lines to a Lakers’ game at Staples. The sheriffs were doing a platform ticket stings on the Pico station. My uneducated (Caucasian) friend, threw his paper ticket away in the trash in front of the sheriffs. The sheriff’s deputies made him dig threw the trash to retrieve his ticket to avoid paying the fine. It was very difficult for me to contain my laughter.

    If passengers pay their fares, then they should not worry. If $3.50 a day becomes a burden, then the county needs to implement a program to help.

  • Matt

    Since Streetsblog thinks fare enforcement is too stringent and punative (by the way this is an extreme minority opinion of the riders of the system), let me put in a slightly different scenario to get your opinion.
    Say a car parked in a bike lane. As a biker you had to stop and walk around on the sidewalk because riding into the street with traffic would be dangerous. The next week you noticed a few more cars parked in the bike lane and saw a meter maid and you asked her if she was going to ticket these cars or have them towed. Even worse, there were open metered parking spots just a block away. She said no. These people parking here are poor and often cannot afford to pay parking meters much less expensive parking tickets. Furthermore, they are often disaffected people of color and we don’t want them to have to have the traumatic experience of being involved in the criminal justice system if they can’t pay their tickets. Over the next week, even more cars parked in the bike lane and now the bike lane was useless. You had to bike in traffic in a different route that was much more dangerous and now you often just drive instead.
    I’m sure Streetsblog would have no issues with this right or are there different rules when it involves bikes? Joe – Sahra?

  • Tony Johnson

    Fully agree with this. Rather than decriminalize fare evasion, we need to expand discounted fare programs so that those who are truly in need still pay the share they can and those who are gaming the system get the punishment they deserve. When you see someone just walk right through the handicapped gate on the Red line without paying or see someone get on a train without tapping it makes you a little bit less inclined to tap yourself.

  • sahra

    You put a lot of effort into a really bizarre scenario that has absolutely no relation to South Central’s history of repressive policing. And you’ve now commented twice to make sure that I was aware of just how much you did not understand what repressive policing looks like or what its impact on communities of color has been.

    If I were you, I would use that free time more wisely.

    This isn’t about whether or not anyone thinks fare evasion is OK or not OK. This is about how fare evasion is policed and whether policing fare evasion is an excuse to practice a form of stop-and-frisk…which is what I’m arguing it is, as evidenced by the targeting of particular lines and groups of people and practices I have observed time and again with my own eyeballs, and stories I have compiled from people who have been mistreated. And I am arguing that allow the policing of fare evasion it to be used as a way to harass and curb the mobility of the people that rely on transit the most is deeply detrimental.

    I don’t get why it is so offensive to you that folks of color be treated with respect and dignity by law enforcement. Or why you are always so quick to ascribe to me arguments that I do not make and positions that I do not hold. It’s kind of your thing…you’re rather consistent with this habit. And it’s unfortunate…especially because these positions you erroneously imagine I hold consistently seem to make you so angry.

    Seems like a lot of unnecessary self-imposed stress, if you ask me.

  • Richard

    The blue line ridership has actually rebounded up to near it’s peak again. Really striking that it is back up considering the delays caused by rebuilding the line and the LADOT caused traffic-cluster on flower street.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    I believe Matt’s point it sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…

    Maybe, just maybe, the Blue Line has the highest fare avoidance citations because it has the highest fare avoidance. I will admit to being a casual rider, but I would say at least 50% of the time I ride, I see sheriff’s deputies enforcing fares (Red Line primarily). All fare enforcement is done equally (everybody is checked) and seldom do I see somebody actually avoiding the fare. Are you telling me that there is no indignity to making somebody did through the trash to look for a ticket (as happened to my friend – see post below)?

    I do believe that many infractions (moving violations, parking tickets, fare evasion, etc.) are regressive taxation. But if I get caught, I quietly take my lumps. The place to argue is the courthouse, not on the street. I learned at a young age that making a scene at the time of ticketing will get you in handcuffs real fast. (Caucasian speaking.)

    If there is a direct correlation to fare evasion and poverty, then a discount TAP card program needs to be implemented. But at the same time, if TAP cards are made more affordable, then penalties need to increase. If you can prove you are poor, then it costs $0.50 a ride – if you still avoid the fare, then it costs you $500.00.

  • Matt

    I am actually a long time Streetsblog reader and supporter from before you were here and I’ll probably be here longer than you. I am also a long time LA transit user and what I see is numerous people not paying their fares and some causing trouble like fights, drug use, sexual harassment, etc… Once in a while there are police checking fares and there are often people who can’t produce their valid fare. They often get off with just a warning or are escorted out to a TVM to buy their fare. I’m sure some get tickets, but I rarely see that. Some fare dodgers probably get checked for outstanding warrants, which is certainly fine by me and pretty much 95% of the public.
    I point out biases and slanted points of view in your stories and your comments (where they really come out), and you don’t like that. I can give numerous examples, but for one on the original Reef article you stated that the Community was mostly opposed to the Reef and Councilman Price ramming down into the Community. Well, Price is up for re-election in two weeks so if that is really true, I suppose he won’t do very well and CD 9 will have a new councilman? Lets see if you were right, but if you aren’t it would be nice to show that you erred and shouldn’t make such judgements after talking to a non-scientific representation of the Community and hopefully you avoid doing so in the future.
    Your stories often have the following theme:
    Police, White People, Developers, and Westsiders = evil and the cause of much of the problems in the Community.
    Local community = victims of the above.
    Of course you will deny this even though it is right there in the comments in many of your articles. Just like you wouldn’t answer my question above. How come there were never articles on the brutal student murders at USC and how students are more afraid to be out at night (and use transit or walk or bike)? Or more recently in Boyle Heights, there has been harassment of local businesses which included a hate crime and just a few days ago one of these businesses closed up due to the consistent harassment. BH used to be home to mostly Jews and Japanese. Can they not visit their old community or will they be subject to the same discrimination that the businesses were? These issues don’t fit the above theme so I guess I answered my own question, but it is disappointing to see Streetsblog limit itself into such a narrow lane.
    I think Streetsblog would really benefit by sending you to the Santa Monica/Westside beat for a year and putting someone a little more even keeled here without all of your preconceived notions.

  • Matt

    It is still down about 20% from the peak (was over 90k and now is about 77k), although I agree some of that has to due with the delays caused by integrating Expo and the rehab of the Line.

  • I started to read “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. It’s mainly about racial disparities in enforcement of drug laws forming a system of social control against African Americans in particular.

    One of many interesting ideas is that people have unconscious biases, even when they consciously reject racial discrimination. Those kinds of bias might explain LASD being more likely to assign officers to Watts than to Santa Monica for fare enforcement. It also could explain how a police department could say it isn’t racist, and believe it, while simultaneously treating black and brown people worse.

    It’s not to excuse, but merely to try and better understand.

  • sahra

    love that book. love michelle alexander. seriously. you’re right about biases, in general. but this effort to target watts is more conscious… there is an issue of fare evasion and there are definite safety concerns along the line. i have issues with targeting the poor as a general rule. but it’s really the treatment of folks of color that bothers me. that’s where both the implicit and explicit biases so clearly play out and the treatment of those folks is so significantly different and so aggressive. metro has yet to address that in earnest.


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