Fare enforcement is a step removed from policing, and so it can brush against the twin controversies of American policing: racial bias and use of force.
In one 2017 incident, rider Devin Glaser saw fare enforcement officers detain two boys of color, whom he estimated to be about 10 years old. Glaser suspected racial bias was the reason for the stop, and the inappropriate behavior of the officers.
Glaser reported the incident to Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson and King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who both sit on the Sound Transit Board. The board members asked Sound Transit staff to review the incident.
Rhonda Carter, Sound Transit’s chief of staff, summarized the security camera footage of the incident in a letter to Upthegrove and Johnson. Carter concluded that the officers acted wrongly:
Upon entering the train at the Mt. Baker Link Station, the fare enforcement officers (FEOs) in question saw two juvenile riders pop up from their seats and appear to rush towards the doors behind them. Because the riders appeared to do so in reaction to spotting the FEOs, they were identified as potential fare evaders or “hoppers”.
Soon after the FEOs boarded the train, the doors began to close and the FEOs, against Sound Transit policy, intentionally blocked the exit so that the suspected fare evaders could not debark. The policy states that suspected fare hoppers should always be followed off of the train and stopped on the platform.
After the doors closed, the FEOs checked the youths’ fares and found that they had paid full adult fares.
Carter denied accusations of racial bias in the incident, but says the officers were disciplined. The discipline included remedial training, but it is not clear whether that training addressed racial bias:
In the course of the investigation, Securitas found no evidence of age or racial bias as was alleged in the original complaint. However, given the policy violations that were found, corrective counseling was issued to both FEOs, and one of the two received remedial training on ST’s policies regarding individuals attempting to elude fare enforcement, policies regarding the handling of juveniles, and the policy regarding the inspection of fare media. The second FEO chose to resign before receiving the training.
However, Glaser insists that racial bias was the reason for the incident.
“This is the policing of young black boys. This is what leads to inequity,” Glaser says. “These kids were picked on, forced to stay on the train, terrified.”
Sound Transit has limited demographic data about its ridership, so racial bias in fare stops is difficult to quantify precisely. However, several available data sets do suggest that people of color, particularly African-Americans, are disproportionately cited by fare enforcement.
Sound Transit supplied STB with data the agency collects about the self-identified race of each person stopped by FEOs. In 2016 and 2017, a respective 21 and 22 percent of cited fare evaders were African-American riders. In 2015, the year before the University Link extension opened, 25 percent of cited fare evaders were African-Americans.
The best racial demographic data available—the 2010 Census—suggests that rate of cited fare enforcement of African-Americans is disproportionate to the share of African-Americans in the general population. So does Sound Transit’s internal data.
A fall 2015 Sound Transit study says that Black or African-Americans comprised 13 percent of all riders. 7.9 percent of Seattle’s 2010 population described themselves as African-American in the 2010 Census, and 6.2 percent of King County’s 2010 population described themselves as African-American. In the ZIP codes containing one or more Link stations (98118, 98188, 98144, 98134, 98104, 98101, 98122, 98102, 98105), 14 percent of the sum population identified as African-American in the 2010 Census.
In its April 2018 audit on fare enforcement, the King County Auditor did not draw firm conclusions about the racial impact of fare enforcement checks, citing a lack of demographic data. However, it did conclude that fare enforcement’s frequent fliers were more likely to be homeless and/or people of color:
“Ninety-nine people received at least 10 penalties each between 2015 and 2017, totaling about six percent of all penalties during that time. Almost 19,000 people received penalties between 2015 and 2017. Of those people, 99 individuals (0.5 percent) received a total of 1,589 penalties or six percent of all penalties in this time period. One person received 53 penalties over two years. The majority of this group are people of color, people who experienced housing instability during this time, or both.”
Sound Transit’s director of public safety, Ken Cummins, says that standard fare enforcement procedure should prevent stops based on racial bias. Cummins says that, since officers don’t select which people to stop—pairs start from one end of a train car and systematically check each person on board until they meet in the middle—procedures prevent selection bias.
“Who gets inspected first? Whoever pulls out their card first,” Cummins says. “It’s self-selected, where [passengers] sit. [FEOs] work their way until they meet at the middle of the train, or a fare evader.”
“They never go directly to a person and inspect their fare. Even though these guys are so professional and good at their jobs that they could get in there, and you could ask them, ‘Which one of these people, based on their behavior, doesn’t have fare?’ They could tell you. Doesn’t matter. We always follow this process that takes away any ability for the officer to discriminate based on any factor. The discrimination that occurs on a fare enforcement contact is very simple: they either had fare or they didn’t.”
Cummins says that, by statute, fare enforcement officers are designated “enforcement officers,” but are a grade below sworn, commissioned officers like a sheriff’s deputy, state patrol officer, or city police officer. Fare enforcements officers cannot make arrests. They are authorized to use nonlethal force against threatening riders under the direction of commissioned officers, or under their own direction in defense of a fellow officer or a bystander. Since fare enforcement officers are not authorized to use lethal force, FEOs call the King County Sheriff for backup in moments that the FEO believes could become life-threatening to themselves or riders.
The Sheriff’s office has faced intense scrutiny for its use of force policy over the last year. In June 2017, King County deputies shot and killed Tommy Le, an unarmed teenager, in Burien. Le’s death prompted County Executive Dow Constantine and other county leaders, at the urging of various Asian and Pacific Islander groups, to revamp the way the county investigates use of force by King County deputies, and restart in-progress inquests of other use of force incidents.
King County deputies have shot and killed two people on Sound Transit property in recent years. Both were armed. In July 2018, a deputy shot Jesus Hernandez-Murillo in the Sounder Kent Station parking garage. Hernandez-Murillo had an AR-15 and was driving a stolen Honda Civic; the deputy who shot him said that Hernandez-Murillo was reaching for the assault weapon.
The other shooting took place on the platform at the Sodo Link station in July 2014 after a fare enforcement contact. Fare enforcement officers engaged Oscar Perez Giron on a light rail train. When he did not comply with their instructions, the FEOs escorted Giron and another man, Mario Parra Cetina, off the train. A King County deputy arrived a few minutes later.
As the FEOs and deputy talked to the two men, Giron attempted to flee. The officers restrained Giron. As they held him, Giron reached into his clothing and pulled out a pistol, which is visible in video of the incident. As Giron pointed the gun at the deputy, the deputy shot Giron. Giron’s death remains the only time that a ST or Metro fare enforcement stop has escalated to the level of discharging a firearm.
A September 2018 use of force incident on a Link train at Capitol Hill station is more typical. The incident attracted controversy on the internet, because a video of the incident shows only, without context, officers pinning a rider.
However, Cummins says that the use of force is well justified. According to Cummins, the pinned rider had spent about twenty minutes harassing and threatening other riders on the Capitol Hill platform, and ignored repeated descalatory instructions from FEOs and a deputy. Cummins says the man was detained when he tried to flee the scene on the train.
Cummins says that a large portion of the force used by Sound Transit security officers, including FEOs, is to prevent people from hurting themselves:
“A lot of our uses of force are people trying to jump into the trackway and try and harm themselves. We physically detain them: at that point we’ll put them in handcuffs until we can get them medical, and get them some help.”
“Use of force is—it always looks bad, but it’s not always a bad thing.”
This post is part two of a three post series on fare enforcement on Seattle-area transit. (Link to Part One.)
This post has been corrected: the April 2018 report was prepared by the King County Auditor, not Metro.