Two years ago, 29-year-old Howard grad Tapiwa Musonza was wrestled to the ground and tasered repeatedly by Metro Transit Police Department officers. His crime? Verbally intervening on behalf of some young Black boys being arrested at the U St. Metro station. That egregious incident was among a string of incidents in which MTPD officers brutalized and harassed Black riders.
We’ve testified repeatedly about the need for independent oversight of MTPD to offer some accountability for when Metro police go off the rails. But instead of bringing more oversight to the MTPD, this week the WMATA board will consider giving transit police even more power.
On Thursday, the board will consider a proposal that gives MTPD unlimited discretion to suspend someone from Metro transit based on the officer’s accusation alone. There’s no minimum standard required, such as reasonable suspicion or probable cause, that officers must meet before issuing a suspension.
That’s right: people could be banned from public transit based solely on an accusation by an MTPD officer. No judge, jury, or trial, and the appeals process is laughable: the ban would have to be appealed to a person appointed by WMATA’s General Counsel, not a neutral arbiter like a judge, and the appeal could take as long as two weeks. During the appeals process, the person is banned from Metro: they could lose their job; miss school, doctor’s appointments, or court dates; or be unable to take care of loved ones because their sole mode of transportation has been stripped from them. And if they violate a wrongful suspension because they rely on transit to meet basic needs? They could be arrested for criminal trespass.
A policy like this is ripe for police abuse. For instance, suppose a rider reported they were flashed by a Black man of medium height. That description wouldn't come close to justifying an arrest. But under the proposed policy, nothing stops MTPD officers from relying on that description to issue a suspension to the first Black man of medium height that they see. And the burden of proving they are not the suspect in question is now on the person who was suspended.
We fear this proposed increase in law enforcement powers will have a negative impact on Black and brown people and low- or no-income individuals most. We need only look to San Francisco’s BART system, which implemented a similar ban in 2013. In its 2019 report to the California Legislature, BART reported that 67% of those arrested under its prohibition order law were Black, even though Black BART ridership is only around 21%.
If WMATA is looking for a good model for racially profiling its riders, it’s found it.
WMATA has also failed to show if the rider bans in other cities (it cites BART, Los Angeles Metro, Atlanta’s Marta, Dallas DART, and Chicago’s CTA in its official proposal) have achieved their intended purpose of reducing crime on transit. Nor has it explained how MTPD officers will enforce this ban: how will officers know who has been banned and who hasn’t? Will officers just stop anyone they think has been banned? A 2018 Washington Lawyers’ Committee report found that Black riders made up 91% of those stopped for fare evasion. What makes anyone think MTPD will behave differently if this ban passes?