David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

In a welcome development this week, the New York City Council held public hearings on a bill that would require the NYPD to publish quarterly data about fare evasion arrests – a policing strategy desperately in need of greater scrutiny.

The numbers don’t lie. Fare evasion enforcement is unduly focused on people of color in low-income neighborhoods, police statistics show, highlighting a cynical campaign that is a remnant of the Giuliani administration’s “broken windows” policing strategy.

On average, a staggering one of every four NYPD arrests in recent years involved charges of fare beating, according to police statistics. In the first quarter of this year, 4,624 such arrests were made, putting the city on pace to matching the 30,000 arrested last year. Fully 90 percent of those arrested were people of color, including two 15-year-olds and one person over age 70.

In 2016, police stopped more than 140,000 people for jumping the turnstile. The city spends upwards of $50 million annually to arrest, prosecute and issue summons to low-income fare beaters — an enormous amount of resources for a non-violent crime. And when you combine aggressive farebeating enforcement with unaffordable transit fares, you create a scenario in which thousands of people – most of them poor and most of them black and Latino – are being dragged through the criminal justice system.

The city’s current approach to fare evasion enforcement amounts to de facto criminalization of poverty. It prompted us to take a closer look at the effect these policies were having on communities, particularly low-income neighborhoods. The end result was a report we released this week, “The Crime of Being Short $2.75” which examined the frequency of fare evasion arrests at subway stations in Brooklyn in relation to other factors such as neighborhood demographics, poverty rates and criminal complaints. The findings paint a stark picture of racial inequality.

Not surprisingly, our researchers found that higher arrest rates tended to be at subway stops in poor neighborhoods. But what was striking was this: fare evasion arrest rates at subway stations in neighborhoods with the largest numbers of black residents living in poverty were seven to 35 times as high as at stations in neighborhoods with comparable numbers of Latinos living in poverty. These lower-arrest stations are located in areas with rates of criminal complaints that are similar to or even higher than those at the high-arrest stations. In other words, socio-economic patterns don’t explain the racial disparity in arrest rates.

Instead of spending city funds to target poor people of color for arrests at the turnstile, we should be redirecting these city resources towards policing more serious crimes and consider ways we can reduce arrests and encounters with the criminal justice system. Acknowledging that arrests have life-long consequences limiting a person’s employment, housing and educational opportunities, some have taken progressive steps to put the brakes on the over-prosecuting of non-violent crimes. Last June, District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced that people arrested for fare evasion in Manhattan would no longer face automatic criminal prosecution. Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez has indicated his office is considering a similar policy that may include issuing summons to first time offenders and diverting others to a desk appearance and mandatory community service. This is welcome news, and we hope that District Attorneys in the city’s other three boroughs follow suit.

More Transparency of Policing Practices

In addition to reforming how we adjudicate these offenses we also need greater transparency from the NYPD when it comes to policing strategies and data collection. Currently, the NYPD only releases fare evasion data sporadically, and often only in response to requests by elected officials or MTA members. Legislation introduced by Queens Councilman Rory Lancman would require the NYPD to publicly release quarterly fare evasion arrest data online and by category, including race, gender, age, station stop and police precinct. The City Council should act affirmatively on this legislation which would help us better evaluate trends in enforcement and ensure that policing methods in our public transit system are based on public safety considerations, not racial profiling.

Yet another way to reduce fare evasion is through education and deterrence, something apparently the city is loath to do here. We can spend millions to enforce and prosecute poor people for fare evasion, but we can’t spend a dime for a public awareness campaign that warns of the potentially dire consequences of getting stopped for fare evasion, including the possibility of a criminal record?

Lastly, we need `Fair Fares,’ a program to provide half-priced MetroCards for the working poor. A more affordable and accessible transit system would go a long way toward solving the fare evasion problem.

Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for including “Fair Fares” in his proposal to tax wealthy New Yorkers to pay for subway improvements and half-priced transit fares the lowest income New Yorkers. But this is glaringly inconsistent with his defense of `broken windows’ policing in the subways, a position that threatens to cast a pall over his progressive reputation and his efforts to create a more equitable city.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years and a Member of the MTA Board. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.