Most of the tickets MBTA Transit Police issue for skipping fares are to people of color, even though they account for a smaller percentage of subway riders, according to data obtained by the Globe.
In response to a Globe public records request, Transit Police provided two months worth of fare evasion citations, from October to November, 2019. The numbers show that Black riders received about 42 percent of fare evasion citations, and Latino riders accounted for another 20 percent. One-third were given to white riders. All the citations were issued on the subway system, where more than two-thirds of riders are white, according to surveying by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Separately, Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Conservation Law Foundation obtained about 150 MBTA fare evasion citations from January 2019, which showed that about about 55 percent were issued to people of color.
“On the face of it, it looks like an issue of racial profiling,” said Lauren Sampson, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston organization focused on fighting discrimination. “It raises the question of who Transit Police are stopping and giving a citation to.”
But Transit Police officials strongly defended their practices, arguing they’ve heard no recent complaints about disproportionately targeting people of color and noting that officers undergo anti-bias training.
“I don’t know why the numbers are the way they are, but this is the first time I’m hearing this criticism,” said Transit Police Chief Kenneth Green, who is Black. “There is no way that I’d allow my people, Black people, to be disproportionately targeted in any way, shape, or form.”
The citation data, Green said, “doesn’t rise to the level where I’m overly concerned.”
The release of the data comes two months into the most recent national protest movement over racial inequities. Even before the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis sparked efforts to dismantle systemic bias, advocates have been pushing the state to lessen penalties for fare evasion, arguing they are unfair to poorer riders.
The MBTA police issue more than 2,000 citations for fare evasion each year. The penalties are noncriminal, but riders can be arrested if they refuse to identify themselves to officers. Fines start at $100 and increase to $600 by a third offense. Violators who do not pay up are unable to renew their drivers’ licenses.
Fare evasion is also a near-constant gripe of some riders, who feel they are cheated when others don’t pay; that criticism escalates whenever the MBTA considers a fare hike, with riders saying the agency should tighten up on skipped fares before asking them to pay more.
The issue is especially acute on the commuter rail, where the T has said it loses millions of dollars a year due to missed fares. Much of that is because conductors fail to collect fares during crowded rides.
The log of 156 citations obtained by the Globe indicates that they are only issued at subway stations and that the problem is not policed on commuter rail, which is primarily white, or on buses, which have the highest rate of riders who are people of color in the system. Fare evasion is more difficult on buses, because drivers monitor payments.
Officials said that rather than covering the whole system, officers are deployed to specific subway stations where police or the public have expressed concerns about safety, crime, or other “quality of life” issues. Officials credit the strategy with record low crime rates on the transit system.
Catching fare evaders is a byproduct of this work, not the aim of it, officials said, which means citations may not be representative of fare evasion across the subway.
For example, the Andrew Station on the Red Line, which has a more diverse ridership than the overall subway, had a high number of citations in the data T police provided to the Globe, even though it is not among the most heavily used stations. Transit Police Superintendent Richard Sullivan said officers often monitor Andrew because it is located near a methadone clinic, prompting concerns about drug use near the station. As a result, officers write more fare evasion citations there, he said.
Others theorized another reason Andrew is so highly policed: It’s located a half-mile from Transit Police headquarters. “That’s the only thing I could think: the police don’t want to go far, so they just go there,” said Mela Miles, director of the T Riders Union advocacy program.
In any case, the current strategy disproportionately punishes people of color, said Staci Rubin, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, who argued the T must establish regulations to better guard against bias.
The two legal organizations are campaigning to have the penalties reduced, arguing that if the MBTA also provided discounts for low-income riders, it would result in less fare evasion. Some advocates, meanwhile, are pushing the MBTA to drop fares altogether, at least on buses.
These concerns have significant implications as the MBTA prepares to expand its enforcement practices as part of the adoption of a nearly $1 billion all-electronic fare system.
That new system will allow riders to board through back doors of buses and trolleys by tapping fare cards on small machines, out of sight of drivers who guard fare boxes. The MBTA expects to deploy fare inspectors to conduct spot-checks, verifying riders paid and issuing citations if they haven’t. Transit systems in Europe police fare collection similarly. So does the California Bay Area system, where Black riders have been cited disproportionately although officials argue they are not being unfairly targeted.
The MBTA has said the fare inspectors will not be police officers. General manager Steve Poftak said the agency is developing policies to guarantee these inspections are “equitable,” including an “auditable ... paper trail of how citations are being done.”
Meanwhile Massachusetts lawmakers are debating whether to lower the penalties associated with fare evasion. The Senate has backed a proposal from Governor Charlie Baker to lower fines to as little as $10.
State Representative William Straus, the House’s point person on transportation issues, declined to discuss ongoing negotiations but said he would support giving the T the option of lowering fines. The fines were increased nearly a decade ago to deter fare evasion but have since been criticized as being overly harsh.
“They’re preposterous and draconian,” Miles said.
The Senate proposal would also end arrests related to fare evasion. In 2018, Transit Police arrested 19 people for refusing to identify themselves when asked, 14 of whom were people of color, according to Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Conservation Law Foundation.
Sullivan, the Transit Police official, said fare evaders also have the option to verbally identify themselves if they aren’t carrying ID and are only arrested if they repeatedly refuse to do so.