Thomas Wright, who regularly rides the Metro train to visit his son in Long Beach, said police have stopped him many times over the years to check that he’s paid his fare.
On one occasion, Wright, 32, said he didn’t have the funds to pay the full fare, so he paid the discount senior rate. Police stopped him for a fare check and handed him a $75 ticket as other riders walked by unchecked, he said.
“It didn’t feel good because they didn’t stop anyone else,” said Wright, who is Black. “It felt like I was singled out.”
Wright isn’t the only person of color to feel that way on public transportation.
The issue of racial disparities in fare enforcement has long been a concern for pubic transportation advocates, and many cities, like New York City, Portland and Los Angeles, have since eased their policies. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for example, has scaled back on its citations for fare evasion and no longer fines riders under 18.
But while transit agencies push for change, a Long Beach Post analysis of an unprecedented trove of LBPD data shows that Black riders in the city were disproportionately stopped on suspicion of fare evasion last year.
Of the 855 riders who came into contact with Long Beach police in 2019 for failing to pay their tickets on public transportation, 531, or 62% were Black. Latinos made up the second highest group at 25%, followed by White at 11% and Asian at 1%.
The data does not differentiate whether the passengers were riding on Long Beach Transit buses or the Metro A Line train (formerly called the Blue Line), which runs through Long Beach. But the numbers show overall disparities when compared to Black ridership rates on public transportation.
On Long Beach transit buses, Black riders make up about 21% of passengers, compared to 51% Latino, 20% White and 14% Asian.
For the Los Angeles County Metro trains, 44% of riders are Latino, while 18% are Black, 21% are White and 11% are Asian. The Long Beach Metro A train has a higher rate of Black riders (about 35% according to one Metro survey) as it runs through several historically Black neighborhoods.
While the numbers highlight disparities for Black riders on public transportation, experts caution that it is not proof of racial profiling. The information, for one, is reliant on officers’ perception, and it’s impossible to know exactly what an officer is thinking when he or she initiates a stop.
It is also unclear how many stops resulted in citations.
Michael Gold, a spokesman for Long Beach Transit, said Long Beach police issued 29 citations for fare evasion on its buses last year, but those numbers aren’t broken down by race.
“By and large, the number of total incidents of fare evasion on Long Beach Transit is low,” he said.
Long Beach Police Lt. James Richardson, head of the department’s Metro Division, said Long Beach officers do not initiate fare enforcement stops on Metro trains. Civilian Metro Fare Enforcement officers are responsible for stopping people and issuing citations, but Long Beach officers will assist if an incident escalates or a person is being uncooperative, he said.
“On occasion if we see other violations that might get added to a ticket we will make a stop, but we never do primary fare enforcement,” he said.
The Long Beach Police Department in a statement said it is still reviewing the huge amount of data on police stops it was required to start collecting last year under the California’s Racial and Identity Profiling Act.
“Racial profiling is unacceptable and against the law and our policies—as a Police Department, we uphold the right of all individuals to be treated equally and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures while safeguarding lives and property,” the department said.
Nonetheless, activists say the numbers reflect entrenched racial disparities in policing on public transportation.
Lisa Holder, a Los Angeles civil rights lawyer, said law enforcement has long targeted people of color using the “broken windows” theory of enforcing small infractions to reduce overall crime.
“They call it proactive policing when really it’s a dog whistle for racial profiling,” she said.
Holder said the push for justice on public transit has gained momentum with the nation’s mass police brutality protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
Last month, the Metro board of directors made a step toward changing transit policing with plains including reviewing its use of force policies and focusing on a new community safety approach.
Metro has a $130 million per year policing contract with multiple agencies, including the Long Beach Police Department, that’s up for renewal in 2022.
While Long Beach police may not be responsible for stopping riders for fare evasion, they have had a strong presence along the A Line since signing its contract with Metro in 2017.
The LBPD has noted that crime has dropped dramatically on the train line in recent years. Violent crime dropped 50% from July 2017 to July 2018, while less serious crimes like vandalism, drug violations and disorderly conduct dropped by 80 percent.
The LBPD polices only about four miles of track and eight rail stations, but in 2017, it logged more than half of all arrests throughout the 98-mile, 93-station rail system.
Activists, meanwhile, have argued that the heavy policing comes at the expense of Metro’s core ridership of poor and minority passengers.
“They want it gentrified; they want to ‘clean up the rail lines’ and get rid of people of color so it’s perceived as safe,” said Holder, the civil rights lawyer. “And the sacrificial lamb is African American riders.”
Holder is currently representing a Black couple from Long Beach who is suing the LBPD for civil rights violation alleging they were unfairly targeted for a fare check by officers in 2017. The case is pending in federal court.
The Labor/Community Strategy Center, the parent organization of the Bus Riders Union, has also filed lawsuits against Metro and the LBPD, alleging that Black riders are unfairly targeted for fare evasions. One lawsuit, which was later settled, alleged that Black passengers make up about 19% of bus and rail riders but accounted for more than 50% of all fare evasion tickets over a three-year period.
Aston Greene, Metro’s deputy chief for systems security and law enforcement, said Metro for its part has worked to significantly reduce fare enforcement tickets and checks in recent years. The agency in 2019 conduced more than 758,000 fare checks, down from 3.4 million in 2018.
“The effort since 2017 has been to help customers in paying their fare if they haven’t already,” he said. “The focus is on education and working with customers rather than just slapping a fine.”
Community groups, however, say riders still feel unfairly targeted.
Areli Morales, with the Alliance for Community Transit, points to the case of 23-year-old Cesar Rodriguez, who was crushed to death between a train and a platform in August 2017 as he ran from Long Beach police officers. Officers had conducted a fare check and discovered that his TAP card was invalid.
Morales said she’d like to see the police replaced with civilian ambassadors, who could provide a more welcoming and helpful presence.
“For many people, it’s not a welcoming environment to see police on the trains,” she said.
How we reported this story
The Long Beach Post analyzed data for this story that includes details about more than 40,000 people stopped by Long Beach police last year.
The data was made available under a landmark anti-racial profiling bill passed in California in 2015 called the Racial and Identity Profiling Act, known as RIPA. The bill mandated that the Long Beach police officers in 2019 start tracking what they perceived to be the race, gender, age, LGBTQ+ status, English fluency and any disability for every person they detained.
Officers were also required to document what they did during the encounter and how the situation ended—whether it be a citation, warning, arrest or other outcome.
The Long Beach Post recently gained access to that detailed data log by filing public records requests with the state Department of Justice and LBPD.
For more stories based on this data, click here.