A coalition of groups concerned about Port Authority’s plan to use armed police officers for fare enforcement is turning up the heat against the policy.
The coalition began gathering signatures on petitions at light-rail stations Wednesday and posted a petition online to collect more signatures. In addition, there will be a public meeting at 6 p.m. June 15 at 1 Smithfield St., Downtown, for people to air concerns about the policy.
“We are responding to concerns from residents,” said Gabriel McMorland, incoming director of the Thomas Merton Center. The coalition also includes Pittsburghers for Public Transit, Casa San Jose and the Alliance for Police Accountability.
The groups say they fear the system could result in racial profiling, a criminal record for not paying a $2.50 fare and problems including possible deportation for undocumented immigrants. They want nonpayment of fares handled as a civil matter enforced by unarmed fare compliance officers, with unpaid citations turned over to a collection agency.
The authority is going to a cashless fare policy on the light-rail system this summer and recently announced that fare enforcement would be handled by armed authority police officers. They will check whether riders paid their fare using a prepaid ConnectCard or cash ticket. To avoid racial profiling, officers would use a hand-held reader to check all riders on a light-rail vehicle or everyone in the designated paid area of a station platform to make sure they had paid.
After a warning, riders caught not paying a second time will receive a criminal citation up to $300, and officers will check the criminal justice system for outstanding warrants.
The coalition discussed its concerns during a private meeting Wednesday with Jim Ritchie, Port Authority’s marketing director. They said Mr. Ritchie listened to their concerns and promised a written response, but they said they were disappointed that Port Authority Police Chief Matt Porter and acting CEO David Donahoe didn’t attend.
In an email statement, Mr. Ritchie confirmed the meeting but did not address why other officials didn’t attend. He said the authority would “thoroughly review and consider the information shared with us.”
The authority says that under current state law only police officers can issue citations and that conducting a warrant check is normal police procedure on all citations.
Two other jurisdictions say using civilian enforcement officers instead of police officers has worked in their transit systems.
Paul Rose, a spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, said that system has been using enforcement officers for more than eight years. Officers issue citations of $116 to adults and $58 to juveniles; they were charged as criminals before state law was changed two years ago.
Offenders have 21 days to pay or challenge the citation in court. If they don’t respond, they get a mailed notice with another 21 days to pay, followed by penalty of $31; another penalty of $42 if it isn’t paid after another 28 days; and then a fee of $48 if it isn’t paid within the next 28 days, for a total of $237 for adults.
Mr. Rose said there have been some problems with riders responding badly when they are issued a citation.
“The transit fare inspectors have been assaulted, and that’s why we have started campaigns to remind people that they are just workers doing their jobs,” Mr. Rose said. “It is a challenge to keep all of our employees safe.”
There has been no talk of switching to armed officers, he said.
In the Seattle area, the Sound Transit system began using enforcement officers when it opened a light-rail system in 2009. They are unarmed but wear body armor and carry batons and handcuffs, said spokeswoman Kimberly Reason, and sheriff’s deputies are available at stations to handle serious confrontations.
Civil penalties are $124. Riders with four fare-evasion citations within a year can be charged with theft by Seattle police.
A recent study found a fare-evasion rate of 3.26 percent, Ms. Reason said. Riders get one warning a year for an unpaid fare and last year enforcement officers found about 37,000 evaders but had to issue only about 5,600 citations to second-time violators.
“Our enforcement is purely and solely for checking whether someone has paid,” she said. “We never check for anything else unless there is some other criminal activity going on.”
“He’s getting a little too big for his britches,” she says. “He’s wanting really expensive things and, I mean, we’re not wealthy. And I don’t believe in spending $150 on a pair of shoes. I’m not that way, even if I was wealthy.”
At the same time, like her two other children, she wants him to want those things and to do better for himself.
“I want him to be successful here. I don’t want him just to get by. The same way I push my other kids, I push him, too. ‘OK, that’s great, but what’s the next thing? How can we do more?’”
Bartolo has come a long way since that day he crossed the border in 2013. There’s nothing certain about this future, but it’s a lot more secure than it was in those days when he was sick, undocumented and far from home.
Bartolo is still waiting for his green card, which will give him legal permanent resident status in the US. He will turn 20 in July, but he can stay in the foster system until he turns 21. He’s gained weight and is still getting treatment for his health problems including the heart murmur.
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