The Mercury News
By Erin Baldassari

African-American passengers are bearing the brunt of BART’s new fines for riders who fail to pay fares, as they receive tickets at a rate that appears to be far higher than their proportion of overall ridership, data from the agency shows.

BART in March began issuing tickets with $75 fines for adults and $55 fines for juveniles to crack down on fare evasion, which it says costs the agency up to $25 million a year in lost revenue. During a 14-day period in July — a relatively small sample but the only data BART provided in response to a public records request from this news organization — African-American riders received 41 percent of tickets issued, even though they make up only 12 percent of riders, according to a 2015 survey, the most recent available.

No other group faced such a wide disparity. White patrons received 23 percent of tickets, and made up 44 percent of riders, according to BART’s data. Asian and Pacific Islanders made up 23 percent of passengers but received 5 percent of tickets. And Hispanic or Latino riders, who made up 18 percent of passengers, received 10 percent of the tickets. Another 20 percent of people who received the tickets were labeled as “other” or “unknown.”

“It’s shocking,” said BART board Director Lateefah Simon. “It is, of course, very troubling.”

BART is in the process of doing a deeper dive into its data, which the department expects to present in a report to its governing board next week. The report comes as BART is considering more than doubling the size of its fare inspection program — from a team of seven inspectors at a cost of nearly $791,000 per year to at least 17 inspectors, for an additional $800,000 annually.

Between March 6 and July 31, BART issued 2,766 tickets. Because the agency’s electronic citation processing system did not begin until July 18, officials said they only provided data to this news organization about the race of those cited from July 18-31. During that period, 269 tickets were issued.

When BART implemented the fare-evasion program, it said it tried to institute methods of eliminating any bias on the part of its officers and fare inspectors. The agency instructs fare inspectors to take a systemic approach to checking tickets, said BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

For example, if fare inspectors enter a train, they’re told to start at one end and move from one passenger to the next without skipping anybody in between, according to BART’s training manual for fare inspectors. Inspectors are instructed to use the same practice on station platforms, moving in sequence from person to person.

They’re also advised to activate their body cameras, which BART’s Office of the Independent Police Auditor then spot-checks. Since BART began issuing tickets, the auditor’s office has reviewed more than 50 individual recordings amounting to “hundreds of hours of video” and watched fare inspectors conducting checks as instructed, Russell Bloom, BART’s police auditor, said in a statement.

“We have not seen any evidence that fare inspectors are singling out individual riders for enforcement of the ordinance,” he said.

The tickets that inspectors issue are civil infractions, like a parking ticket. BART has said it would issue a criminal citation for fare evasion, a misdemeanor, only if a rider fails to pay three times within a 12-month period. Unlike fare inspectors, who are required to issue tickets, BART police officers have discretion over whether to issue a warning or arrest someone for fare evasion, if they witness someone jumping over the fare gates. In the near future, BART police officers will also be able to issue tickets, something that only fare inspectors do now.

That discretion is where bias can come into play, said Elisa Della-Piana, the legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “Even in small amounts of discretion, that bias in all of our systems comes up, and it plays a role in who is hit the hardest,” she said.

A growing body of research demonstrates these types of fines — especially for noncriminal offenses, such as traffic tickets and other civil infractions — disproportionately impact low-income people and, especially, people of color, said Anne Stuhldreher, San Francisco’s Director of Financial Justice.

“When people can’t pay a fine or a fee, sometimes consequences set in that can snowball and hit people really hard,” she said.

Stuhldreher’s office was instrumental in proposing community service as an option for low-income people who qualify, which they can complete in lieu of paying a fine. Since BART began issuing tickets, only 55 people have requested community service, and 13 have completed their service, Trost said.

As housing costs continue to escalate in the Bay Area’s urban core, more people are moving out to its suburban and rural fringes, where it gets more expensive to ride BART, since the agency charges passengers based on the distance they travel, said Hana Creger, environmental equity program manager for The Greenlining Institute.

“Black and brown people are being pushed to suburbs, and that’s increasing their transportation costs and also reducing their transportation options,” Creger said. “How can you improve your standard of living and quality of life if you can’t get around?”

BART Director Simon says she doesn’t know whether poverty or bias is more to blame for the disproportionate impact, but she wants to find out. The answer will inform BART’s next steps, she said.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of this,” Simon said. “And, we’re going to figure out how to make changes.”