Testimony: New York City Council Committee on Public Safety

Testimony by Nancy Rankin, VP for Policy Research and Advocacy, Community Service Society of New York

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today in support of Int. 1664 which would require the police department to regularly report data on arrests and summonses for subway fare evasion.

My name is Nancy Rankin. I am Vice President for Policy Research and Advocacy for the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), a nonprofit organization that works to advance upward mobility for low-income New Yorkers. 

In New York City, one of the things essential for economic mobility is access to public transit. As MTA fares have risen, one in four poor New Yorkers struggle to afford the buses and subways they must rely on to get to work, seek employment or training, care for their children or simply get around the city. To address this problem we launched a campaign calling for half-price fares for New Yorkers living below poverty that has drawn widespread public, editorial and political support, including from 40 of the 51 members of this City Council.

As we drew attention to this issue, many New Yorkers, and our public defenders pointed to even more serious consequences of prohibitively high transit costs: unaffordable fares combined with aggressive farebeating enforcement, a hallmark of broken windows policing, was annually dragging more than 26,000 people, most of them poor and most of them black or Latino, through the criminal justice system. Arrests can have lifelong consequences, including a criminal record that limits employment, housing, and higher education opportunities, and could put an immigrant at risk of deportation.

These concerns prompted CSS researchers to examine 2016 fare evasion arrest data from the two public defender organizations operating in Brooklyn—The Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defender Services—to shed light on how fare evasion policing was affecting our communities.  The Brooklyn data paint a stark picture of racial inequality. Individuals arrested were overwhelmingly people of color: young black men (ages 16-36) represent half of all fare evasion arrests, but are only 13.1% of poor adults living in Brooklyn.

Our full report, “The Crime of Being Short $2.75: Policing Communities of Color at the Turnstile," was released today. Authors Harold Stolper and Jeff Jones found that arrests for fare evasion overwhelmingly involve young black men, and are highly concentrated at subway stations located in high-poverty black neighborhoods. While local area poverty levels and criminal complaints are related to fare evasion arrests, neither fully explain this racial disparity.

Subway stations with the highest rate of fare evasion arrests per 100,000 MetroCard swipes were all located in predominantly black neighborhoods near the border of Brownsville and East New York (Junius St. 3, Atlantic Av L, Sutter Av L, and Livonia Av L stations). Fare evasion arrest rates at these stations were between 7 and 35 times higher than rates at stations located in areas with comparable numbers of Hispanic poor residents (around stations in Sunset Park). Similarly, fare evasion arrest rates at stations located in Brownsville and East New York are considerably higher than at other Brooklyn subway stations with similar or even higher numbers of nearby criminal complaints located in areas that are not predominantly black. This suggests that the high rate of farebeating arrests is not merely incidental to the deployment of police to high crime areas.

These troubling findings underline the need to have publicly available data on fare evasion arrests and civil summonses, on a timely, regular basis. The bill introduced by City Council Member Rory Lancman would do just that. It would require the NYPD to release quarterly reports on both the number of arrests for fare evasion, the number of civil summonses issued, and the demographic and location information for those arrests. Having access to data on the number of fare evasion arrests and civil summonses broken down by race and ethnicity, gender and age for each MTA subway station, would allow us to see whether the patterns we observed in Brooklyn are playing out across the city. For the first time we would also have data to ascertain whether less harsh civil summonses that carry a $100 fine follow a different or similar pattern. Moreover, trend data would enable us to assess the impact of announced changes in the prosecution of fare evasion arrests by Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, as well as much needed reforms in policing practices.

The city’s current approach to fare evasion by New Yorkers who lack $2.75 to cover the subway fare amounts to de facto criminalization of poverty. This is not unique to New York City. Cities like San Francisco, Minneapolis and Seattle are beginning to grapple with the fact that public transportation is being policed in a way that has a disproportionately adverse impact on poor communities of color. Instead of punitive policies that harm our most vulnerable members, and saddle young black and Latino men with criminal records, we should work to make public transit more affordable for all, including those living at or below poverty.

Thank you.

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