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Racist Policing Follows the Rail Lines, New Study Shows

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People of color are five times more likely than white persons to be ticketed for fare evasion along mass-transit lines in Los Angeles, a new study of aggressive law enforcement on the Los Angeles transit system shows. Lallen Johnson, assistant professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, and Evelyn J. Patterson of the Department of Sociology and Law School at Vanderbilt University, authored the new study, which is the first to look closely at the effect of gentrification on the policing of mass-transit systems.

“People often view gentrification through the lenses of rising home values, displacement, and changes in the availability and types of services,” said Johnson. “Our work shows that we, as a society, need to consider how socio-economic changes predict other critical outcomes, including the nature of policing and who is policed.”

According to the researchers, gentrification, an unexpected increase in rental housing costs and the prevalence of college-educated residents, is associated with heavier reliance on “order maintenance policing” as cities rebrand urban environments as cultural, entertainment, and knowledge centers that cater to wealthier residents and visitors. Mass transit is viewed by many as a critical component of the global city.

Researchers said the over-citation of people of color could be a result of policies designed to attract new residents to rapidly gentrifying urban neighborhoods in the city.  According to the authors, subway stations along the nation’s sixth-largest mass-transit network have become focal points for the aggressive policing of racial and ethnic minorities to present an image of “safety” and “order” to new homeowners, tenants, and entrepreneurs.

The study shows that citations are issued more frequently at stations located in gentrifying areas of Los Angeles. The researchers note that at the average station, Black riders were at least five times more likely to receive a citation than whites. The treatment of fare evasion, according to Johnson and Patterson, aligns with a growing body of penal remedies that expand the sphere of public social control in urban environments and target disenfranchised people.

“It is ironic that Black and Latinx transit riders face higher levels of police scrutiny than whites, considering that cities market themselves as places of high social tolerance,” said Johnson. “The selection of who to target nonetheless implies some level of officer discretion that is often shaped by ethno-racial biases.”

The study used citation data spanning from December 2017 through May 2018. Although the data contain multiple violation types, the researchers limited their analysis to citations for fare evasions issued on rail lines and focused on citations issued to three key ethno-racial groups: Black, white, and Latinx riders.

The study, researchers say, has important policy implications. “Agencies should be cognizant of the possibility that extreme disparities in citation patterns may undermine riders’ perceptions of police legitimacy,” the researchers said. “We hope that our work will call for a reformulation of fare evasion policing procedures and that it will encourage transit agencies to think about how transit policing can contribute to the marginalization of racial and ethnic minorities.”

The study, “The Policing of Subway Fare Evasion in Post-Industrial Los Angeles,” published in the journal Punishment & Society.