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Ticket to Jail (For Some): Study Finds Massive Racial Disparities in Fare Evasion Arrests

People of color comprised nearly 94 percent of those jailed for turnstile hopping, according to an examination of recent NYPD data. Meanwhile, the police department is breaking the law by failing to provide its complete demographic records.

Peter Rugh Oct 22

Issue 241

If you are caught hopping a subway turnstile in New York City, you are four times more likely to be booked if you are black than if you are white. That is according to a new analysis of long-awaited enforcement data released by the New York Police Department on Oct. 3 conducted by the Community Service Society of New York (CSSNY) and provided to The Indypendent.

People of color bore the brunt of fare evasion summons, 78.2 percent, and of arrests, 93.9 percent, CSSNY found. Just 3 percent of white individuals stopped for fare evasion were arrested, compared to 14 percent of African Americans.

The analysis is the result of City Council-approved legislation that passed last year and went into effect in January. It requires the department to disclose the race, gender and age demographics of riders ticketed or cuffed at each subway station in the city for turnstile-hopping. Lawmakers were compelled to act after a 2017 CSSNY report, drawn from arrest data maintained by Brooklyn Defender Services and the Legal Aid Society, confirmed the daily experiences of black straphangers and exposed a strong racial bias on the part of the NYPD in Brooklyn.  

Neglecting to swipe a MetroCard carries very different consequences depending on the color of a person’s skin and where it takes place.

The law is intended to bring transparency to the department’s enforcement tactics citywide and, by shining a light on its behavior, curb and ultimately halt the department’s systemically racist policing practices. Only when City Councilmember Rory Lancman, who introduced the legislation, filed a lawsuit against the NYPD and the city in September did the NYPD begin to publish its data.

Though what was finally released on Oct. 3 points to the continued persistence of racist enforcement on the part of the NYPD, the information available remains vague and incomplete. If nothing else, the department’s critics say, it further indicates the lengths the police force will go to prevent the public from gauging just how racist it is at an institutional level.

“I don’t even think they [the NYPD] would say they are in compliance,” Councilmember Lancman told The Indy. “The police department is afraid the full disclosure of the data would reveal the extent to which fare evasion enforcement is discriminatory toward people of color and poor people. They dread the reckoning that will come from that.”

The data available covers the final three months of 2017 and the first six months of this year. It gives demographic breakdowns for the total number of summons and arrests, but omits exact numbers for most of the city’s 472 subway stations — the exception being a “top 10” where the most arrests occurred. It also provides demographics for the bottom 90 out of the top 100 stations, yet, without explanation, this data only appears in percentages.

Confused? That appears to be the point.

“What are they hiding?” asks CSSNY researcher Harold Stolper. “That’s impossible to say for sure but there is documented evidence of racial targeting.”

The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment from The Indy. It has previously claimed that the delay in the data’s release was due to logistical issues but later shifted its argument, saying that its publication would endanger public safety.

“It is an absurd contention,” said Lancman. “And it is one that the police did not bring up during the hearing or bill-drafting process even once.”

The NYPD has also contended that it is simply going where the crime is, the neighborhoods with the highest number of criminal complaints.

“No,” says Stolper, who co-authored CSSNY’s previous report based on Brooklyn public defender “theft-of-service” arrest data from 2016. Even within high crime/high poverty neighborhoods, there were considerably higher arrest rates in neighborhoods like East New York and Brownsville that were predominantly black as opposed to white or Hispanic.

The NYPD “might be going where the crime is but a lot more so if the neighborhood is predominantly black,” said Stolper — at least in Brooklyn, the focus of CSSNY’s initial study. That’s why station-by-station data from across the city so important. It is needed in order to determine which communities the NYPD is targeting across the board. In Brooklyn it is African-American communities, in other parts of the city the populations targeted might be different.

Yet, as of now, it is impossible to develop a complete, ground-level picture. In one particularly glaring example of just how vague the data the NYPD provided this October is, there are four stations located along 125 Street in Manhattan, but only one 125 Street station is listed in the published spreadsheets. Each of the stations located along the thoroughfare inhabits a separate neighborhood with unique racial compositions of their own: from El Barrio to the east through central and west Harlem with its pockets of heavy gentrification and, further west, up to the predominantly white area surrounding Columbia University. To which 125 Street is the NYPD referring? So far, that’s anyone’s guess but the NYPD’s.

Incomplete as it is, the data does show signs of change.

Arrests for turnstile hopping fell by 70 percent from the last quarter of 2017 to the second quarter of this year. The drop is likely due in part to increased public scrutiny on the NYPD and because Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, whose office oversees the city’s most heavily-trafficked subway stations, has declined to prosecute fare evasion in most cases.

Yet racial divisions in terms of enforcement have persisted. Neglecting to swipe a MetroCard carries very different consequences depending on the color of a person’s skin and where it takes place. A black person stopped for fare evasion in Brooklyn is 30 times more likely to be arrested than a white person in Manhattan, according to CSSNY’s analysis.

The reason behind the racial disparity in arrests likely stems from the department’s policy of detaining so-called “transit recidivists,” individuals given summons or arrested previously in the transit system — even if the case was later dismissed in favor of the accused. Critics charge that the NYPD’s recidivist database serves to ensnare people of color in the criminal justice system, simply for the being unable to afford a $2.75 subway ride.

Arrests and summons will likely go down further beginning in January, once the Metropolitan Transit Authority fully implements its Fair Fares program, long-sought by anti-poverty campaigners, that provides low-income New Yorkers with half-priced MetroCards.

Councilmember Lancman, who has thrown his hat in for next year’s Queens District Attorney race says that if elected he’ll follow Vance’s lead and won’t prosecute turnstile hopping either. Instead, he wants to treat the violation as a civil offense.

“We shouldn’t run anybody through the criminal justice system for it any more than we run anybody through the criminal justice system for not feeding the meter when they park on the street or for leaving their trash out before it is supposed to be picked up,” said Lancman.

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Photo: Ashoka Jegroo/wagingnonviolence.org.