Strategy Center Files Lawsuit Seeking Arrest, Citation, and Deployment Data from Metro, Law Enforcement Agencies

Metro and law enforcement agencies fail to adequately respond to requests for public records

The Rosa Parks Station in Watts, looking toward Long Beach. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The Rosa Parks Station in Watts, looking toward Long Beach. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Between May and September of this year, the lawsuit Public Counsel filed on behalf of the Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC) this past December 13 states, both Metro and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) failed to adequately respond (or respond at all) to multiple requests for public records regarding policing and fare enforcement practices, breakdowns of data on those arrested, cited, and engaged by law enforcement, and the agreements and communications between Metro and law enforcement agencies regarding law enforcement’s role in policing transit. [The lawsuit can be found here: PDF]

The lawsuit is part of a continued effort to monitor the extent to which Metro is addressing injustices alleged in the federal civil rights complaint the LCSC filed at the end of 2016.

Using Metro’s own data, the LCSC had found that while African Americans only comprised 19 percent of rail riders, between 2009 and 2016, they regularly received nearly 50 percent of the citations for fare evasion and other infractions and were nearly 60 percent of those arrested. The fact that such a significant proportion of those citations and arrests happened along the Blue Line – the line cutting through historically distressed South L.A. neighborhoods where black unemployment and underemployment has long been in the high double digits and where young black men (especially those coming from one of the several public housing developments along the line) have struggled the most to find and retain steady jobs – the LCSC argued, suggested law enforcement was capitalizing on the vulnerabilities of the black community.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) first response to the complaint was to suggest Metro engage with the LCSC to reach a voluntary resolution to the concerns cited. Metro CEO Phil Washington did so, meeting with LCSC representatives in January of 2017.

At that meeting, Metro shared it was shifting fare compliance functions from sworn law enforcement to civilian Transit Security Officers (TSOs), decriminalizing youth citations by transferring jurisdiction to Transit Court and reducing penalties, implementing implicit bias training for all fare compliance staff, and using undercover “mystery shoppers” to observe how fare compliance was conducted.

It was a step in the right direction, the LCSC wrote in its summary of what transpired, but the failure of Metro to acknowledge the extent to which fare enforcement had been used as a de facto stop-and-frisk vehicle by the LASD suggested a lack of comprehension of the extent of the problem or its effect on black mobility and access to opportunity.

The USDOT ultimately fell somewhere in the middle, reporting this past October that its investigation into the complaint was inconclusive while being unwilling to let Metro off the hook.

Consequently, USDOT announced a one-year agreement with Metro, whereby it would provide technical assistance (TA) with regard to fare collection and fare compliance practices. TA would also be provided to aid Metro in conducting outreach and engagement on policing and fare compliance in an effort to help the agency “proactively avoid practices that could have a discriminatory impact on [transit] users.”

According to Metro, the details regarding the form that assistance will take in practice are still being hammered out.

In the meanwhile, the current lawsuit is meant to aid the LCSC in evaluating the implementation of the recently approved multi-agency contract with the Sheriffs, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) and to continue monitoring fare enforcement and policing patterns.

The departments have not made that easy.

As described in the suit, the LASD often contradicted its own policies (e.g. claiming it did not track things like incidences of use of force) or misrepresented the requests in order to argue the data could not be released. Collectively, all three agencies failed to provide data within a set time period as required by the California Public Records Act, provided only partial data sets or pointed the LCSC to unrelated data, claimed some requests put too great a burden on the agency, and/or failed to acknowledge particular requests altogether.

Neither has Metro.

Metro’s response to requests for documents regarding current or past expectations of law enforcement or about how Metro handled the many complaints made about officers when LASD was the sole contractor suggests there are no such documents to be had.

It’s a troubling claim, and one the lawsuit alleges is likely to be untrue.

The most recent negotiations around the multi-agency policing contract, however, were noteworthy for just how little official discussion there was regarding what law enforcement’s actual mandate would be or how it would be expected to patrol.

Nuanced discussions of what “safety” and “security” would look like in practice or whose “safety” and “security” would be prioritized never fully materialized.

Instead, Metro boardmembers spoke of how greater visibility and saturation on transit would yield improved response times and greater security. Boardmember Ara Najarian went one step further and asked what had to be done to make law enforcement officers feel safer.

Citing the video of an off-duty officer in Anaheim wrestling with a youth, flashing his gun and then firing it to scare the kid and his friends, Najarian said,

It’s important to look at the side of the officers and the deputies – from all of your agencies. I want to make sure…that none of [the officers] feel vulnerable, alone, isolated…We’ve seen in the news…how a single police officer can be hounded by a group of young kids and feel very threatened in his actions. So, I’m hoping that we don’t create that sort of situation and that all of our [law enforcement] agencies feel supported and [have] the ability to reach out in case incidents arise.

Considering the years LASD and Metro spent clashing over what role law enforcement should play on the trains (Metro wanted the Sheriffs to focus on fare enforcement; LASD preferred to do crime suppression), the inability of Metro to provide more documentation on the subject is troubling.

The death of a young man at a train station earlier this year – crushed by a train after he was frisked by LBPD officers over fare evasion and an altercation ensued – lends questions about how law enforcement is being deployed even greater urgency. The TSOs were meant to put a buffer between law enforcement and lower-income riders of color, yet, as detailed by the LBPD, Cesar Rodriguez still ended up being detained and searched over $1.75 fare.

When asked about the lawsuit, Metro said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Read the lawsuit here.

  • Nancy Johnson

    The data presented does not show that the enforcement is somehow racially motivated. They say that, although 19% of rail riders are black, they received 50% of the citations and were 60% of the people arrested. The relevant data point for comparison is not the percentage of African-Americans that use the rail (19%) but rather the percent of African-Americans versus overall riders who engage in fare evasion. If 60% of people who fail to pay the fare are black, then African-Americans receiving 50% of the citations and 60% of the arrests doesn’t indicate any racial motivation.

    The same is true for most of the enforcement being on the Blue Line. Does the Blue Line have the most ridership of people who don’t pay the fare? Given that, as this author notes, the Blue Line cuts through a distressed neighborhood, it would make sense that more people in that neighborhood would engage in fare evasion then other lines through more affluent areas.

    We all want more and better public transportation and the only way to have this is to ensure that people are paying their fare share (pun intended) to use the public transportation system. This articles seems to be promoting a lack of fare enforcement if it means that more people of color are being cited (regardless of the fact that the group may be more likely to not pay the fare). I assume we all agree that Metro should be enforcing fares.

  • sahra

    I find myself writing this every time a story like this comes up, so you’ll have to forgive the cutting and pasting:

    Questions about the policing of the lines isn’t about whether or not anyone thinks fare evasion is OK or not OK. They are about how fare evasion is policed and whether policing fare evasion is an excuse to practice a form of stop-and-frisk…which it long has been. The high arrest rate, and even the recent death of Cesar Rodriguez (who was crushed by a train), allude to this. Fare checks were opportunities to make warrant checks, search folks, etc. – folks’ lives can be upended because they don’t have $1.75.

    All that aside, this story in particular is about the lack of transparency on the part of Metro and the LEAs in question. The contract between the parties is for over half a billion dollars.

    Public dollars.

    For that price, and in compliance with the public records act, data should be easier to come by. Especially now that there are new practices in place and 77 TSOs have been brought on to act as a buffer between LEOs and transit users… data will help clarify how policing is being handled under this new contract and new approach. And clarity on what Metro expects of those patrolling the lines will help make it easier to hold both accountable, which I assume we all agree is a good thing.

  • Nancy Johnson

    This entire issue appears to have arisen from data from 2009 to 2016 which then prompted a lawsuit and all of the other things that are cited in the article. However, the data relied on to give rise to these issues is misleading and incomplete. Forgive me for repeating myself, but the 19% statistic is not relevant to this issue at all. The article states that 50% of tickets and 60% of arrests are of African-American riders. If those percentages correspond to the percentage of African-Americans versus overall riders who engage in fare evasion, then there is zero showing of any racial bias – which was what prompted the issue in the first place.

    Why does the article not include the one data point that is the most relevant to this discussion?

  • sahra

    In asking your question again, you’re doubling down on the idea that
    contacts with law enforcement are straightforward and that the numbers
    tell us all we need to know about encounters. They don’t. If you have
    ever seen young folks of color detained for fare evasion, you know it is
    anything but… they are often put up against a wall, searched, and
    detained for lengthy periods of time. Over $1.75. White patrons are not
    likely to be treated that way.

    And before making claims about what the percentages tell us, I would suggest a look at the data. A significant number of the tickets given are not for fare evasion, but are at the officers’ discretion. That raises a lot of questions. Tickets are often excuses for folks to be searched, have warrant checks run, etc. and they’re hard to contest… meaning they can end up turning into warrants. It can create a real barrier for folks who are trying to get their lives back on track but come up against officers who are misusing their authority. So, a group being disproportionately ticketed is indeed a red flag..and that will be my answer no matter how many times the question is repeated.

    It’s important to know South LA also has a high proportion of homeless folks, including foster kids who aged out of the system, who ride the trains w/out paying because they have nowhere else to go and no other means of getting around. It’s not uncommon for them to rack up tickets over time. So it may appear that LEOs are doing their job of catching folks, when the reality may be that they are targeting some of the most vulnerable folks in the city.

    To its credit, Metro launched a homeless outreach program and have worked on trying to reach and move people into housing, or at least into getting the help they need. Which might be something that would result in a dip in tickets given out along the Blue Line.

    But we won’t know more about how that or any other effort to curb discriminatory practices is working until the data is made available… which is the actual point of the story.

    All my best,

    sahra

  • Eric

    why respond to someone who created a disqus account just to say that racism doesn’t exist anymore…

  • sahra

    Because, unless I am mistaken, this is a guy who has trolled me on these issues for some time now. If so, the lack of name-calling and rather measured form of the question (relatively speaking) would represent progress, believe it or not. The underlying sentiments are, of course, not progressive. But unfortunately this person is not the only one that thinks about things this way, and leaving it unanswered validates this line of thinking. So, it bears calling out, at the very least.

  • Parque_Hundido

    Nancy didn’t say racism doesn’t exist any more. She said the article is using the wrong statistic to prove that racism does exist. The correct statistic is not the percentage of riders who are black, but the percentage of fare evaders who are black.

  • sahra

    No, because the lines are not policed equally – certain lines are targeted, and sometimes non-black or non-brown riders are not checked. So it cannot be assumed that the overall percentages of fare evaders cited corresponds with the larger universe of fare evaders.

  • Parque_Hundido

    Maybe the lines being targeted are the ones with the most fare evasion?

  • sahra

    I will point you to the answer to “Nancy” below, where I speak a bit about what the numbers potentially mean with regard to interactions between police and riders.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Metro Extends Sheriff Contract 6 Months; What’s In Metro Policing’s Future?

|
Last week, the Metro Board of Directors finally took action on its repeatedly-extended, repeatedly-about-to-expire contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). Metro approved a $44.44 million 6-month extension of the $83 million annual contract covering policing for its entire bus and rail transportation networks. This is the eleventh modification of the contract; most of […]