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Transit advocates want to decriminalize fare evasion on RTA buses and trains

Transit advocates want to decriminalize fare evasion on RTA buses and trains

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, April 2022)         In 2017, two transit police officers boarded a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) HealthLine bus and demanded passengers show proof of payment. When Ronnie Williams could not produce a fare card, he was removed from the bus and issued a citation for fare evasion, a fourth-degree misdemeanor.

     In Ohio, misdemeanors of the fourth degree are met with a maximum jail sentence of 30 days and a fine not to exceed $250. A second traffic conviction within one year is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, as is the consumption of alcohol in a motor vehicle and acts of public indecency. A misdemeanor conviction can stay on your record unless a petition is filed for an expungement to get the information removed. If not paid within 72 business hours, a citation from the Clerk of Courts for criminal prosecution is issued. If there is more than one violation within 24 months, violators are issued a criminal citation.

     Williams pled not guilty to the misdemeanor charge and elected to have a trial. On October 26, 2017, Cleveland municipal court Judge Emanuella Groves found the RTA fare enforcement unconstitutional. “Fare enforcement policies encourage law enforcement officers to perform investigatory stops of passengers without possessing reasonable, articulable facts that passengers have committed a criminal offense,” Judge Groves wrote in her decision. “RTA police officers are decorated with the color of law, and therefore, prohibited from such conduct under the Fourth Amendment. RTA’s fair enforcement policy encourages arbitrary and abusive police practices.”

     Despite the court ruling, RTA has continued issuing citations, with transit police giving out more than 772 citations since 2017, according to RTA Traffic Summary Reports. Over 90% were at Public Square and Tower City.

     Fare evasion of public transport systems is a global problem often resulting in revenue and service quality reduction, and a deterioration in user perception of safety and security, according to a report published by Sustainability, an international, cross-disciplinary, scholarly, peer-reviewed, and open-access journal. The report examined fare evasion causes and consequences on the public bus system in Santiago, Chile. Revenues generated by transit ticket sales are vital as a source of income for transport companies and make significant contributions to keeping the system financially viable. The report states that, in general terms, most transit users have a negative view of the bus system. They feel the system does not contribute to the community welfare and perceive a lack of safety. Demand for public transport access is considered a social right that allows for social inclusion.

     “Fare evasion is a small portion of the RTA budget,” said William H. Nix, President of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 268, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. “Fares help to ensure that people on the busses and trains are using it for transportation, rather than a free place to sleep. It is also a safety issue, as confronting the public about fares can lead to assaults. There does need to be a stronger presence by the transit police.”

     RTA transit operators are routinely required to check fare cards, Nix added. 

     A review of the RTA Bus Operator Handbook states that it is the responsibility of operators to collect and record fares, both cash, and non-cash. Refusing to pay, or not paying a fare to any degree, is a crime and therefore unacceptable. While each situation may be different, the operator must be prepared to assess each unique set of circumstances and choose the most appropriate course of action. According to the handbook, “we [RTA] are attempting to build long-term relationships with our customers and being too rigid may prove to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

     India Birdsong, General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, discussed the future of the Cleveland public transit system at The City Club of Cleveland last February. During the question-and-answer segment of the program, Chris Martin, a member of the grassroots transit advocacy organization Clevelanders for Public Transit (CPT), and an RTA rider, asked whether the RTA ambassador program will hire unarmed civilians and social workers trained in crisis prevention to engage in fare enforcement.

     “Our transit police division is drafting the transit ambassador program,” Birdsong said. “We do not want to replace the police fare enforcement with the ambassadors. We want the ambassadors to assist riders with transit to become more comfortable with it. We are also looking at gaps in our current systems and upgrading technology to reduce fare evasion.”

     Several years ago, Clevelanders for Public Transit issued a policy platform titled Fair Fares: A Campaign for Better Transit. CPT believes HealthLine and Red Line riders have been subject to indiscriminate fare enforcement by armed law enforcement officers resulting in innocent men, women, and children entering the criminal justice system. Fare evasion should be a civil offense, not a criminal offense, argued CPT. 

                  In 2019, Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack prepared legislation to decriminalize fare evasion but never introduced the legislation to City Council. 

     A Fare Evasion Decriminalization Meeting was held again in February on Zoom. At the introduction to the meeting, Chris Martin said policing on American transit consistently discriminates against Black and Brown riders. Bob Ross, a Cleveland resident, said transit riders want to feel safe.

     “People want to use public transit. They also want to feel safe,” said Ross. “Will people feel safer with ambassadors instead of transit police?” he asked.

     Martin suggested the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), a rapid transit system serving the San Francisco Bay Area, as a model policing program for Cleveland. The BART Police Department launched the Ambassador Pilot Program in 2020 to increase the presence of uniformed, unarmed, non-sworn personnel to boost BART’s visible presence on trains. The pilot program included 10 ambassadors who received de-escalation and anti-bias training. The TransitCenter (TC) presented BART and its Board of Directors with the Award for Innovation in Public Safety at the TC Frequencies awards ceremony in New York later that same year.

     Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb served on the Greater Cleveland RTA Board as an appointee of Cuyahoga County for several years leading up to his election. Bibb pledged to change the RTA Board during the campaign by replacing long-time RTA trustee Valerie McCall with Lauren Welch, a routine RTA rider who works for the Say Yes to Education Cleveland scholarship program. The mayor abandoned his efforts after discovering that he did not have the legal authority to remove McCall. Jeff Sleasman, a vocal advocate for a car-free Cleveland, and recommended by Clevelanders for Public Transit for a position on the RTA Board, was nominated by Bibb to serve on the RTA Board. Cleveland City Council has not voted to approve the nomination. 

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