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Metro Transit report shows racial disparities in enforcement

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Wrapped cars
A Green Line Metro Transit LRT train with two wrapped cars passes through downtown St. Paul on Wed. Oct. 8, 2014.
Regina McCombs | MPR News

 Updated: 5:30 p.m. | Posted: 3:30 p.m.

An internal analysis of Metro Transit enforcement data shows a range of racial disparities in how the agency enforces transit and other laws.

The agency released a report Thursday afternoon, analyzing thousands of arrests and citations, as well as other data in connection with fare evasions, drug possession, fights and other crimes, some of them serious. Among the findings:

• Black adults are 16 percent more likely than whites to be issued a citation by police — rather than merely warned about a violation.

• Black adults were nearly 40 percent more likely to be arrested than whites.

• Native American adults were 55 percent more likely to be cited than whites, rather than merely warned.

• Native American adults were almost twice as likely to be arrested than whites.

The analysis also found that for one of the most basic violations, a first-time accusation of not paying a full fare, blacks were 26 percent more likely to get a criminal charge than whites and Native Americans were more than twice as likely to get a criminal charge, in the form of a citation.

Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington, a former St. Paul police chief, said the agency is already responding to the report's findings.

"This study tells me that we have a problem,"  Harrington said, in a statement issued by the Metro Transit. "We are taking immediate action to address it. I want our communities to understand that I know our officers are at their best when they act as guardians for all of our riders."

Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb said he was surprised by the numbers. An avid public transit rider, Lamb hasn't seen police officers display biased behavior, but he acknowledged the data analysis paints a different picture.   "This study demonstrates a clear and compelling need to investigate the reasons behind these disparities in our policing," he said. "These disparities cannot be ignored and we must hold ourselves accountable."

Metro Transit said the changes include a policy of warning all first-time fare evaders, a practice that the analysis suggested would have a significant impact on the racial gap in enforcement actions. The agency asked the Minneapolis-based Council on Crime and Justice to analyze department policies and practices. They will plan a series of public meetings to hear from the public about their experiences with Metro Transit and law enforcement.

The changes came in the wake of a request for Metro Transit law enforcement data by the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU, which has already looked at marijuana and low-level crime in Minneapolis. A study of 33 months of data from the Minneapolis Police Department found black people were 8.7 times more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses than white people — even though demographic data suggested that black residents comprised just under 20 percent of the population in the city at the time. 

The analysis was part of the national ACLU's "Picking up the Pieces | Policing in America" initiative, which used Minneapolis as a case study.

The ACLU has not yet released its own analysis of the Metro Transit data. 

But Minnesota ACLU executive director Chuck Samuelson said that his organization didn't necessarily need the data or the Metro Transit analysis to question how buses, trains and transit infrastructure were being policed. "What drove us were complaints we receieved from the NAACP, and also from various groups of Native Americans claiming they were being discriminated against," Samuelson said. 

He said he was encouraged by the transit agency's plans to make changes, but said there were wider issues as well. 

"Racism is part of it. I think the laws themselves that say this is a crime or this isn't a crime have something to do with it. I think poverty is a big reason," he said. "I don't think it's one cause."