Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Urban transit agencies are rethinking how they prevent crime and maintain order following nationwide protests over racial bias and police brutality in the death of George Floyd and others.

Why it matters: Transit police — an often overlooked arm of law enforcement — are the ultimate beat cops. They're positioned as potential leaders in the effort to defuse anger and rebuild trust in cities where there's renewed interest in the concept of community policing.

Instead of treating fare evasion or homelessness with arrests and prosecution, some transit agencies are experimenting with more compassionate responses to try to address the root causes of those problems.

  • At the same time, agency officials argue a strong police presence is necessary to prevent serious crime and to boost declining ridership.

Context: Even before COVID-19, public transit ridership was falling, due in part to competition from Uber and Lyft, but also because of safety concerns. Many transit systems have sought to beef up their police presence to soothe passengers' worries.

But critics say a crackdown on fare-jumpers and homeless individuals looking for shelter in stations often targets people of color and low-income people.

  • One example: In February, Metro Transit Police in Washington, D.C., came under fire for handcuffing and arresting a 13-year-old boy, renewing complaints that they unnecessarily target black passengers for detainment and questioning.
  • "Fare enforcement essentially is criminalizing being low income. And you can say exactly the same thing about transit police who are charged with clearing out homeless passengers," said Hana Creger of the non-profit Greenlining Institute, which focuses on economic and racial justice.
  • "These are just Band-Aid solutions for much deeper, much more entrenched problems than policing can actually solve."

What's happening: Some transit agencies agree and are taking steps to defund their police budgets or adopt new approaches.

TriMet, Portland, Oregon's tri-county regional transit agency, announced this week it is cutting six police officer positions and shifting $1.8 million of its $16.2 million police budget to other community-based public safety efforts.

  • It will launch community-wide listening sessions and create an expert advisory panel on how to provide bias-free transit security.
  • TriMet will also begin piloting nonpolice solutions, such as mobile crisis intervention teams for mental and behavioral health issues.
  • The changes came after an independent review board recently found a lack of accountability by its multi-agency Transit Police and after Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler yanked the city's officers from the transit agency's police force.

In Philadelphia, transit police have begun using smartphones to stop fare evaders, a common problem that often leads to more serious offenses, Tom Nestel, chief of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), tells Axios.

  • How it works: When someone jumps a turnstile, the cashier alerts a SEPTA officer, who downloads video footage of the offender and blasts it out to the cell phones of other SEPTA officers waiting at stations downstream for the train to arrive.
  • If the accused gets defensive, the officers show them video proof, which Nestel called "a tremendous de-escalation tool."
  • Instead of a $300 penalty, fare-jumpers get a $25 fine and another chance. If they're caught skipping the fare four times, they're banned from the SEPTA system and funneled into social service agencies to help with underlying problems like poverty or drug addiction.

The bottom line: As with any beat officer, transit cops' daily engagement with the people who pass through their stations can keep more serious problems at bay, says Nestel.

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