Last September, after activist and schoolteacher Jesse Hagopian posted a photo that appeared to show Sound Transit fare enforcement officers ticketing kids on the first day school, the transit agency went on the defensive. First, Sound Transit’s social media manager, Bruce Gray (who is white), issued a tone-deaf tweet suggesting that his kids had no issues with fare enforcement because they used the one-day paper passes distributed to parents before school started. (The passes gave every student a free ride to school, where they would pick up free ORCA transit passes through the new ORCA for All program.)
As the blowback continued, Sound Transit kept tweeting, explaining first that the agency’s fare enforcement officers were “not issuing formal warnings or citations,” then adding, in a more exasperated tone, that although “[n]o riders of any age are ever ticketed without getting a warning within the previous 12 months[,] today we are not even issuing the formal warnings to students.” The next day, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff went further, saying in a statement that fare officers had been told to issue only “informal warnings,” which “were not recorded and will not affect the student’s enforcement record in the future.”
After a day of negative press, it’s understandable that the agency would want to set the record straight: No tickets, no warnings, no documentation.
However, documents obtained through a records request reveal that fare enforcement officers actually did issue more than a dozen formal warnings to school-aged kids throughout the day, including nine during and immediately before and after school hours. Moreover, there was considerable internal debate at Sound Transit over what “informal warnings” were (staffers appeared to be hearing the term for the first time as the story blew up), as well as pushback over Rogoff’s public response, which some within the agency appeared to regard as tone-deaf to concerns about the racial impact of fare enforcement.
Sound Transit issued more than a dozen formal warnings to kids on the first day of school despite insisting that fare enforcement officers were told to give only “informal warnings.” Formal warnings are the precursor to citations, which come with a $124 fine and the potential for a criminal record if the fine isn’t paid.
Sound Transit says a verbal notice went out to officers in the morning that they should not ticket or give warnings to students on the first day of school. However, it wasn’t until almost 2:30 in the afternoon‚ shortly before school let out, that fare enforcement manager Michael Patricelli sent an email to fare enforcement officers directing them to “simply educate … juveniles [without fare] and move on” rather than recording their information in Sound Transit’s system. “If you documented a warning or infraction for a juvenile today during school times (0600-1800/Sept. 4th) I need you to submit at void form stating ‘voiding juvenile contact per management,” Patricelli wrote.
And it wasn’t until seven hours later, at 9:30 on the night of the September 4, that a Sound Transit staffer, Ann Snell McNeil, suggested that the agency start using the term “informal warning” to describe the warnings students received from fare fare enforcement officers that day. “[I] suggest adding reference to ‘informal warning’ when talking about the education effort and that the informal warning might have been mistaken for a formal warning [by riders]….since the same steps were taken by the FOE (ie, photographing the ID which could result in the perception by students of being entered into our tracking system),” McNeil wrote. The term elicited a confused response from Office of Equal Employment Opportunity director Jackie Martinez-Vasquez, who responded, “As I stated earlier, this is the first time I [have] hear[d] of this term/process.”
Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham said the term “informal warning” is “not new terminology, though not widely used outside the Security department.”
All 13 of the formal warnings issued to kids on the first day of school were eventually voided and erased from Sound Transit’s system.
A “warning” may not seem like a big deal, but for Sound Transit riders, it’s a precursor for infractions with real financial and, potentially, criminal implications. Getting a warning means you can’t slip up in the next 12 months, not even once—no failing to “tap” your ORCA card properly, running to catch the train without tapping, or just jumping on a train or bus because you have somewhere to be even if you don’t have the fare. If you do, and you get caught, that’s an automatic $124 fine; if you don’t pay it, you could end up with a criminal record. After a King County Metro survey showed that the overwhelming majority of people who don’t pay their fares simply don’t have the money, the county changed its own policies—reducing fines, creating alternatives for people who couldn’t afford to pay them, and dropping criminal penalties.
“When people shared concerns about race on twitter, I believe it is a concern not about targeting but about the potential impact of fare enforcement to kids of color or kids without homes who may not have equal access to the ‘free pass’ or could feel more intimidated by fare enforcement. I would suggest we remove this section from the response.”
Sound Transit has resisted doing the same, arguing that they need to do their own independent study to see why people don’t pay fares and how much money they stand to lose by backing off on enforcement. The agency has also rejected the idea that its fare enforcement policy disproportionately impacts people of color, despite the fact that people of color receive a disproportionate share of tickets, arguing that their method of checking passengers—starting from the ends of the train and working in—makes bias essentially impossible. So it’s worth noting that, although 13 kids isn’t the kind of sample that will hold up in stats class, 10 of the kids who received warnings on the first day of school were children of color, and five, or almost 40 percent, were black. Across the system, black riders receive about 21 percent of all citations despite making up just 9 percent of riders.
In the midst of the controversy, agency director Peter Rogoff appeared to again dismiss concerns about disproportionate impacts on riders of color.
First, in an email to Sound Transit’s board, Rogoff emphasized the agency’s “color-blind” enforcement method, writing that “[f]or years Sound Transit has operated under fare enforcement protocols that focus very specifically on avoiding any kind of bias or targeting of any specific individual” by checking everyone on the train in a specific order. In a separate list of “assertions” and “responses,” Rogoff wrote, “There were several tweets suggesting fare enforcement officers were targeting people of color. I want to emphasize that our fare enforcement protocols specifically focus on avoiding that kind of completely unacceptable scenario.”
Carrie Avila-Mooney, Sound Transit’s director of regional government and community relations, raised “concerns” about this section of the agency’s response before it went out, suggesting that Rogoff missed the point about the racial impact of fare enforcement.
“I do not think that people were asserting that we targeted people of color for our fare enforcement,” Avila-Mooney wrote. “When people shared concerns about race on twitter, I believe it is a concern not about targeting but about the potential impact of fare enforcement to kids of color or kids without homes who may not have equal access to the ‘free pass’ or could feel more intimidated by fare enforcement. [Bolds in original]. I would suggest we remove this section from the response. This is a key piece to our response and I am worried that the original text does not reflect an understanding of the concern about enforcement and people of color.” The section stayed in.
Second, Rogoff emphasized the fact that the mother of the young woman Hagopian photographed had contacted the agency directly to praise them for their professionalism and to complain about the way Sound Transit was being portrayed on Twitter and by the press. As I reported at the time, Rogoff told the Sound Transit board on September 5 that the woman said her daughter’s interaction with fare enforcement was “great” and that she “resented” people who interpreted the incident as an example of bias.
The emails provide some behind-the-scenes context for Rogoff’s comments about the woman’s call to Sound Transit. In one email to the agency’s director of security, Ken Cummins, Sound Transit’s chief of staff for operations, Claire Khouri, suggested that Cummins include in his summary of the call “a statement that[the woman] will be providing, if we go that route.” In another email, part of a thread discussing what to do the woman’s comments, social media manager Gray wrote, “I also hope someone gave her Heidi Grover’s [sic] email.” Heidi Groover is the Seattle Times transportation reporter who covered the story.
At least one Sound Transit staffer criticized the agency’s decision to use the mom’s praise as a defense against criticism. Sound Transit speechwriter Josh Feit—full disclosure: my friend, former colleague, and occasional contributor to this site—said in an email to colleagues after the board meeting at which Rogoff read a statement that included the woman’s comments, “I disagreed with the decision to add the anecdote about the call Peter received from the student’s mother because while that individual’s experience was certainly at issue, the public outcry demonstrated a broader concern about fare enforcement. Citing that phone call seemed to dismiss a meaningful debate.”
Cunningham, the Sound Transit spokeswoman, says the agency “did not encourage her to contact media or provide her with any information… though the praise and support for our [fare enforcement officer] was inconsistent with social media characterizations of the nature and tone of his interaction with the student.”
The agency surveyed riders about fare enforcement last fall and is currently considering changes to its fare enforcement policies.