BART Police Citations for 'Quality of Life' Offenses to Get Closer Scrutiny

BART Officer D. McCormick detains Concord resident Steve Foster at Pleasant Hill Station platform for eating, an infrequently enforced violation of state law. (Steve Foster via Facebook)

San Francisco BART board member Janice Li is pressing the transit agency's police force for more transparency on how officers are enforcing so-called "quality of life" infractions on the system.

Li made a formal request during Thursday's board of directors meeting in the wake of recently published statistics that appear to show BART police write a heavily disproportionate share of citations for eating and drinking on trains to patrons of color.

Li asked for a detailed presentation early next year on BART police citations issued for offenses such as eating and drinking, smoking, spitting or playing loud music — all of which the agency prohibits under state state law.

Those offenses, as well as bans on fare evasion, "engaging in boisterous or unruly behavior" and skateboarding or riding bikes on train or platforms, are covered under state Penal Code Section 640.

"If we have biases [in] the way we’re citing violations across the board, we certainly need to know immediately and we need to end those biases immediately," Li said.

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The call for more information on police enforcement of laws governing patron behavior grew out of an incident last month in which an African American man waiting for a morning rush hour train was handcuffed and cited after an officer spotted him eating a breakfast sandwich on the platform at Pleasant Hill Station.

Video of the incident went viral on social media when the man who had been detained, Steve Foster, 31, of Concord, posted a video of his encounter with the officer on Facebook. Foster has since filed a legal claim against BART alleging that he was singled out for enforcement based on his race.

In answer to media requests on the number of eating/drinking citations officers have issued in recent years — the sight of BART patrons snacking on trains and in stations is commonplace — the transit agency disclosed last week it has cited or warned 55 people for such infractions in the last five years. (See table at end of this story.)

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The agency statistics also show that more than 80% of those written up or warned since the fall of 2014 were people of color. That included 33 patrons records identified as black and 12 identified as Hispanic or other. A total of nine white patrons, or about 16% of the total, were cited or warned.

Li said she was "very concerned" by one media account of the data.

She said the purpose of the staff presentation early next year would be "to provide a data driven account for the way BART resources, particularly law enforcement, are deployed and the benefits to our ridership and system safety."

Contra Costa County board member Debora Allen pointed out that questions have been raised about the eating/drinking citation statistics, issued pursuant to California Public Records Act request by The Guardian.

"The number of violations that came out of the PRA was actually found to be incorrect," Allen said.

Officials with BART's police union have said that many of the citations that list Penal Code Section 640(b)(1) — the ban on eating and drinking — represent cases in which a patron was incidentally cited after being contacted by officers for some other offense.

For instance, the list of eating/drinking cases released by BART shows a "citation/arrest" last Aug. 21 at San Francisco's 24th Street Station. That incident, also reported on the BART Police Department daily arrest update, involved a 19-year-old Latino man who police took into custody for alleged battery.

The 640(b)(1) statistics are the latest numbers to call attention to the apparent disparity between the racial makeup of BART's ridership and BART police enforcement activities.

Based on its 2018 customer satisfaction survey, the agency estimates whites make up 35% of ridership, Hispanics 17% and blacks 10%.

But an October report on BART police use of force in 2018 said 59.5% of such incidents involved black subjects compared to 15.8% involving whites. In BART police parlance, use of force techniques range from grabbing subjects and using control holds to employing a baton, Taser or firearm.

BART's independent police auditor is in the midst of a review of all use of force cases for 2018 and 2019.