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SPA Professors Examine Racialized Responses to Metro Fare Evasion

Findings suggest Black riders more likely to be fined

As the United States grapples with dismantling systemic racism, criminologists are taking hard looks at inequities in citation and punishment. In “’Blacks Can’t Jump’: The Racialization of Transit Police Responses to Fare Evasion,” SPA Professors TaLisa J. Carter and Lallen T. Johnson (Race and Justice, April 2021) examine racially disparate fare evasion citation outcomes within the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and what this says about social systems and organizational intent.

Inspired by Johnson’s previous work on fare evasion policing in Los Angeles, they tested the impact of race and place attributes on D.C. transit officer decisions to allocate punishment for skipping the fare.

“Dr. Johnson examined the fare evasion policing in Los Angeles, finding that the race of the rider, as well as increases in housing costs over time, were associated with the issuance of more citations,” said Carter. “Washington, D.C. is experiencing similar gentrification pressures, but we wanted to see if rider race is factored into level of punishment distributed for fare evasion.”

Their findings point to a relationship between race and location and the level of punishment.

“Black riders possess an elevated risk for being fined as opposed to merely being warned for suspected fare evasion at stations located within predominately white neighborhoods,” said Johnson. “Also, Black riders are more likely to be fined for suspected fare evasion at stations with high levels of ridership (e.g., transfer stations and those with located within employment centers and entertainment districts).”

These inequities lead Black riders to feel unwelcome on public transit, said the authors. “Our findings demonstrate how transit police officer discretion challenges Black belongingness on systems of public transportation,” they continued. “It also contributes to a large body of research which finds that socially and economically marginalized groups are the frequent targets of order maintenance policing approaches, such as this.”

Taken more broadly, these results can guide the conversation about organizational intent, or the potentially racist strategic design of institutions and public service delivery.

“Although the actions of individual employees are important to consider when examining racial/ethnic disparities, it is also critical to consider the organization comprehensively, including its practices, cultures, and written and unwritten policy,” they said.

The findings also promote the importance of integrating diverse voices into policy development, in order to shift organizational intent and bring about real change.

“Policies and procedures related to fare evasion should be reviewed by a committee made up of officers, administrators, and community members of diverse races and backgrounds,” said the authors.

They also recommended updating the organizational mission and related products to reflect equitable goals. “In addition, formal documents like mission statements, visions, mottos, or creeds should be reviewed and revised to incorporate culturally inclusive language and equitable outcomes. In this way, transit agencies can actively work towards challenging assumptions and interrogating practices that may covertly perpetuate racially disparate outcomes.”

The authors also had recommendations for scholars studying questions of racial justice.

“Oftentimes, the acknowledgement of systemic racism is divorced from intent,” they said. “However, if scholars fail to consider that organizations operate purposefully, including in ways related to racism, racial/ethnic disparate outcomes will continue.”