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Transit Police Say RTA's Unofficial Fare-Enforcement Policies are Inequitable and Dangerous 

PHOTOS BY SAM ALLARD
  • Photos by Sam Allard

The West 65th Street "Eco Village" Red Line Rapid Station has two passenger entrances: one off Lorain Avenue, the other off Madison, where two fare machines greet riders on the honorary Fr. Bob Begin Bridge behind St. Colman's Church.

One day this spring, while three RTA transit police officers were interacting with passengers in the main station (off Lorain), a robbery occurred on the opposite side. The perp stole a phone and was able to successfully flee, officers told Scene, because the officers were "focused on checking fares rather than patrolling the whole station." "Interacting with passengers" is how transit police brass now refer to writing citations for fare evasion. In current usage, the terms are interchangeable. If an officer assists an elderly rider with directions, that's not an interaction. If an officer breaks up a fight between juveniles, that's not an interaction either. If an officer responds to a call about a stolen cell phone or deals with everyday incidents such as public intoxication, open containers and disorderly conduct, those aren't interactions.

Yet for the fare-enforcement officers on the 107-strong RTA transit police, "interactions" have become the primary focus and mission of the job. Officers told Scene that they're now expected to have 10 interactions (that is, to write 10 citations) per eight-hour shift, an unofficial quota that has steadily increased to its current number through 2017 for reasons they can't quite figure out. These more aggressive fare-enforcement methods have been pushed since March, they said, and have resulted in sinking staff morale and a high degree of turnover.

"People are leaving left and right," said one officer, Brian (not his real name). "The department is in a state of chaos."

"They keep putting pressure on us," said another officer, Vikram (not his real name). "Enforce fares, enforce fares, enforces fares. It's a zero-tolerance policy. If we don't enforce fares, our jobs are in jeopardy."

Scene spoke with these two officers, who both agreed to share their personal experiences on the condition of anonymity due to an RTA employee policy that forbids employees from talking to the media. They described what they viewed as problems with the current honor-based fare collection and enforcement system. They said that transit police leaders (and possibly RTA executive leaders) are taking advantage of flaws in that system to generate revenue. In fact, the officers said, many of their colleagues feel like they have become "nothing more than revenue generators" for the cash-strapped RTA.

Some background:

On both the HealthLine, which shuttles riders from Public Square to East Cleveland along the Euclid Corridor, and the Red Line, which runs from the airport to the Windermere Station in East Cleveland, passengers board without having to show proof of payment. This "honor system" is intended chiefly to increase route efficiency. When the Euclid Corridor project was conceived and funded, level boarding, off-board fare collection and traffic signal prioritization were all central components in the design.

On the Rapid's southeastern Blue and Green lines, meanwhile, riders aren't required to pay until they exit the train. Fare enforcement officers only do random checks on the Red Line and the HealthLine, where riders are supposed to pay before they board.

Those random checks were the subject of an American Civil Liberties Union study in 2010. The ACLU analyzed RTA data and found that nine out of 10 riders who were given citations on the HealthLine were black. RTA president and CEO Joe Calabrese said at the time that officers weren't being discriminatory; the percentage of blacks cited for fare evasion was reflective, he said, of the percentage of black residents living in neighborhoods served by the HealthLine.

That explanation wasn't good enough for the Cleveland NAACP (at that time led by George Forbes); the organization got involved to explore a civil remedy to what was then a criminal matter. Too many people of color were being needlessly exposed to the criminal justice system, the NAACP argued. Fare evasion was (and still is) a fourth-degree misdemeanor and must be processed in court. The ticket is $150, but can cost much more after additional fees and court costs.

In 2011, RTA reached an agreement with the ACLU and the NAACP to establish an administrative fee waiver. First-time adult offenders were given the option to pay a $25 fee directly to RTA and forego criminal proceedings. As long as the fee was paid within three days (online or at RTA headquarters downtown), the misdemeanor wouldn't go on the rider's record. Subsequent offenses within a two-year window still required a mandatory court appearance.

"Understandably, most citizens pay the $25 rather than go through the hassle of missing work and possibly losing their case, which could result in fees being assessed by the court," said Officer Brian. "The majority of tickets written are usually given to people who are eligible for the fee waiver."

Officer Vikram estimated that about half of the citations he writes are to first-time offenders.

In the past, writing a citation was just one of three options officers had when they encountered fare-evaders. They could also issue written warnings (Adult Violation Warnings, in the lingo), which were logged in their system but resulted in no fines, or verbal warnings, which were not logged. Officers say they no longer have discretion to make those calls.

"If you're stopped for fare evasion, the officer is required to write a citation, unless they contact a supervisor and ask permission [to do otherwise]," said Officer Brian, "which is strongly discouraged."

The complaints:

"Discretion is probably the most important thing we have as police officers," Officer Brian said. He told Scene that in the long term, he thinks RTA ought to consider installing turnstiles or employing ticket collectors for a more equitable fare-collection system. RTA estimated that employing tickets collectors at Red Line booths would cost $7 million per year in salaries and benefits. In the short-term, though, Brian said the key is merely giving officers the ability to decide how to handle various situations. Fare evasion incidents are not one-size-fits-all.

The most public of these incidents occurred in 2015, when a fare-enforcement officer assaulted a rider in Lakewood who had presented a valid pass. An internal RTA investigation found that the officer violated RTA policies when he "failed to control the situation that led to an escalation of the incident." RTA settled with the rider, Jessica Ferrato, for $45,000 earlier this year.

rta_payfareshere.jpg

But use-of-force incidents aren't why some transit police officers are singing the blues.

"You want to feel like a heel?" said Brian. "Write a ticket to a poor, confused 70-year-old woman."

Officer Vikram said that many of the fare evaders he encounters have the money in their hands and are ready to pay the $2.50 one-way or $5.50 all-day fare, but often aren't sure when or how to pay. In the new system, those people must be cited for fare evasion.

"If it's someone who tells me the train was leaving and they had to get downtown for work, I'll usually write them a ticket," he said. "But some of them are visiting the city for the first time and are genuinely confused."

Officer Brian said that officers are now also directed to write citations to riders who have passes in their possession but have not activated them.

"We've had roll calls where we're told that 'this is a scam,'" Officer Brian said. "In the past, I'd usually just let them activate their pass. Now, we have to write a citation. I had one [fare-evading passenger] tell me, 'Until you fix the system, I'm not paying,' and I can't blame him."

For Officer Brian, one of the reasons he decided to speak up was because aggressive fare enforcement on a confusing system has led to what he sees as an equity issue. He said he was personally bothered by RTA making thousands of dollars per month "on the backs of people who use public transportation in Cleveland because they have no other way of getting around."

He said that this inequity perception was further solidified by another policy: On nights when there are Cavs or Indians games, officers have been told to "slack up" on fare enforcement.

"On those nights," said Officer Brian, "when there are a lot of riders coming in from the suburbs, we've been directed to let people without passes pay for them."

Officer Vikram added that this directive, like many others, has never been put in writing. Officers are often pulled in for one-on-one meetings with their lieutenant, Orlando Hudson, who has articulated this and other policies in a "clandestine" way. Officer Vikram said he was bothered by the sports-night policy too.

Scene asked Officer Brian if the policy might have to do with something else: Could it be about efficiency, for instance? Maybe there are too many people on the trains and supervisors thought it would be too difficult to enforce?

"That's a ridiculous argument," Officer Brian said pointedly. "If you've ridden the Red Line during the morning rush hour, you know those trains are packed, probably more than for Indians games. And we're doing fare enforcement in the morning. It's not because there are too many people on the trains."

Related to the enforcement concerns are emerging concerns about safety. Officers said that as employee retention becomes more difficult and the total number of officers decreases, the unofficial citation quotas are borne by a fewer number of transit police.

Additionally, said Officer Brian, "instead of hiring more officers, two-officer cars have been downgraded to one-officer cars and the second officer is required to ride trains. If the officer on the train needs assistance, they have to wait for their partner, who is in a vehicle, to arrive and assist them."

A final concern adds to some fare-enforcement officers' impression that they exist foremost to make revenue for RTA, not to "provide a safe and orderly environment within RTA; promote the confidence of the riding public; enhance the use of the entire system; protect life and property through the prevention of crime and terrorism; and to work in collaboration within RTA and with regional partners to respond and recover from man-made and natural disasters," as outlined in the transit police mission statement. Recently, officers have been required to stand on Public Square and ticket drivers who accidentally drive down the closed-off portion of Superior Avenue that, since March 6, has been open to bus traffic. This, too, removes officers from patrolling the system.

The bigger picture:

When asked to identify the motive for the more aggressive fare-enforcement policies, all the officers could do was speculate.

"There's no reason, that we can tell, why the new rules are in effect," said Officer Brian, "other than to arbitrarily increase 'the numbers.' It doesn't make any sense."

Officer Vikram said it's possible the policies have come from higher up the executive chain. "Maybe someone's getting some kind of bonus?" he thought out loud. He said Joe Calabrese had been making noise about the need to increase revenue, especially with big financial challenges on the horizon. By 2019, RTA could face as much as a $30-million budget deficit, fueled in large part by an annual loss of $18 million in tax revenue from Medicaid managed care organizations.

Whatever the cause for the new policies, Lt. Orlando Hudson has embraced them with fervor, officers said, and has shared the enthusiasm with transit police chief John Joyce, a former FBI guy who is regarded as a competent leader in a "retirement gig."

"The last time I saw him," said Officer Brian, of Chief Joyce, "it was a few months ago. He came down shaking everyone's hand and asking us to keep [these new policies] quiet. They were very worried about them getting out."

click to enlarge rtatrack.jpg

Hudson is the only lieutenant in the fare-enforcement division. There are three commanders above him, one of whom is Hudson's cousin. Hudson, who has been with RTA for 19 years, is presumed to want to advance further up the chain.

"I think he's juking the stats," said Officer Brian, who, like Vikram, attributed much of the current tension to Hudson himself. "If I'm writing a ticket out at East 105th, it gets a citation number and a case number in our system. Before, it would just be a citation number. But now, it looks like each ticket is two incidents."

When these concerns have been brought to Lt. Hudson, officers said, he has denied and deflected. There had been rumors circulating, for instance, that if officers didn't write enough tickets, their jobs would be in jeopardy. Hudson, they reported, took an officer into his office to head the rumors off.

"'People are saying that if you don't write tickets you're going to be fired," Hudson was reported to have said. "'But I didn't say that. What I did say is that you're here to write citations. And if you're not gonna do what you're paid to do, you're going to be accelerated up the disciplinary process.'"

Officers fail to see the distinction.

RTA responds:

RTA was presented with the concerns of officers and asked a series of questions related to fare enforcement and transit police personnel.

RTA said that fare-evasion citations net the agency about $4,000 per month, and that that figure has not changed substantially through 2017. RTA rejected claims that officers were no longer able to use their discretion and said that they were never "required" to write a citation. Meetings from supervisors only occurred with the most delinquent officers.

"There have been situations in which a transit police officer has documented NO encounters (which includes no customer service encounters) throughout a given month and issued NO fare evasion warnings or citations," a statement read. "In those cases, that officer would likely be questioned by his supervisor for reasons why no encounters have taken place."

Regarding fare cards, RTA's statement suggested that officers would ticket riders who haven't activated their five or 10-trip cards, but only when riders have done so "repeatedly."

Regarding event nights, RTA said that policies were in place to increase efficiency. "Customers exiting the trains at Tower City are asked by Operations staff to hold up their fare card, and those customers are moved through the open turnstiles," a statement read. "This saves time and moves the large crowds along quickly and safely. However, if any customer does not have a fare card, they are immediately directed to the staff standing nearby so that they can purchase their tickets, and the appropriate fare is collected."

The statement said that RTA is hiring more officers and that the goal is to have as many transit police officers "out and about" (instead of in cars) to increase visibility, thereby increasing the safety and security of customers.

Finally, RTA rebuked the notion that fare-enforcement officers were revenue-generators for the system.

"When they are working as fare enforcement officers, Transit Police officers' goal is not to generate income but to ensure that customers are not robbing RTA of the fare that is due to the transit system for their ride," a statement read. "Their fare enforcement efforts serve as a deterrent to others who might be thinking about not paying. Their efforts also serve to inform our paying customers that the cost of the service should be borne by ALL customers who ride, not merely by those who are honest enough to pay their fare. Fare enforcement helps maintain that level of integrity in the fare collection. If there were no consequences for failing to pay, then everyone might not pay."

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