The board said it will address issues that black Washington-area residents have raised for years, including the alleged targeting of African American customers and allegations that transit officers are rewarded for making arrests and citations, which disproportionately affect black riders.
“We collectively condemn systemic racism within and throughout our transit system. Furthermore, we acknowledge the historic role of transportation in the civil rights struggle in the United States,” board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said at Thursday’s board meeting.
“To that end, the [Metro] board will come back in July, if not sooner, with an action plan to address inequitable policies and practices that do not advance our mission. We will be transparent, publicly accountable for these efforts, as we continue to look for ways to lead the conversation around these critical issues,” Smedberg said.
Board members will consider reviewing transit police enforcement practices, but elected officials in the District, where most Metro Transit Police abuse complaints originate, said the board needs to go further.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who held a hearing last year on Metro Transit Police, said board members should create a civilian review commission to probe all excessive-force allegations and also reconsider fares, especially on Metrobus, which serves Metro’s lowest-income customers.
“I’m glad that the Metro board wants to begin to take action, but I’m also incredibly frustrated that it takes the death of George Floyd for the Metro board to feel compelled to act,” Allen said.
“This is the same board and same organization that fought tooth and nail against decriminalizing something as small as fare evasion despite data that overwhelmingly showed the overpolicing of black men that rode our system,” Allen said. “If they are truly going to embrace change, it is a very abrupt turn for this organization, but one I would hope they would make.”
Before Floyd’s death rocked the nation and the coronavirus pandemic became an all-consuming crisis, the Metro Transit Police Department was under scrutiny for a controversial arrest and its policing strategies.
In February, a video posted on social media brought renewed criticism of excessive force after officers were shown handcuffing a 13-year-old boy at the Shaw-Howard University Metro station. Officers said they thought the boy and a friend were fighting; they boys said they were friends engaged in horseplay.
Days after the teen’s arrest, The Washington Post reported that a supervisor in one of the department’s districts had held an unsanctioned competition that awarded officers who made the most arrests.
The arrest and contest resurrected a perception among many that officers routinely and unnecessarily detain young black teens and adults because they are under pressure to make a certain number of arrests or meet quotas.
D.C. Council members were so concerned about unequal enforcement of Metro rules that in 2018 — over objections from Metro and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — they voted to decriminalize fare evasion inside the District.
At the time, decriminalization proponents cited a report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs that found that between January 2016 and February 2018, 91 percent of Metro Transit Police citations and summons for fare evasion were issued to African Americans. The report argued that locations where enforcement was most frequent — such as Gallery Place and Anacostia — serve a high proportion of African Americans, suggesting targeted enforcement.
The council later overrode a Bowser veto of the legislation.
Following the incident with the 13-year-old, D.C. Council members held a hearing where they grilled Metro Transit Police Chief Ronald A. Pavlik Jr. and urged the transit agency to create a civilian review board to investigate claims of abuse, selective enforcement and excessive force. Pavlik told council members he was open to ideas and was considering bringing in someone from the outside to review internal affairs practices.
Pavlik has said repeatedly that the department does not use quotas.
A month later, the pandemic hit and everything not virus-related stalled. But Floyd’s death has invigorated calls for reform.
D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who along with Allen has pushed for greater oversight of transit police, said he is working to broker the creation of a civilian complaint board similar to what the city has to review complaints against D.C. police.
“Additionally, we must push MTPD to end the use of quotas or police enforcement actions as the basis for police officer performance evaluations or in conjunction with rewards,” White said in a statement Thursday. “I hope to work alongside the Board, General Manager [Paul J.] Wiedefeld, and my counterparts in Maryland and Virginia to address these important systemic issues because Black Lives Matter.”
In a letter submitted as a public comment that was read during Thursday’s board meeting, one rider said the transit agency must address its own problems if it is truly committed to change.
“This board — nor any representative from [Metro], not Wiedefeld or chief Pavlik — has done absolutely nothing to communicate condemnation of MTPD brutality or corrective actions to eradicate systemic racism in MTPD,” said the letter, signed by “Starchild in Virginia.” “Before you weigh in and condemn what others are doing, how about giving your employees, constituents and customers a condemnation of MTPD brutality and an update on what has been done to actually demonstrate that Black Lives Matter instead of lip service and obfuscation that you stand for unity and equality simply because black and brown people are allowed to ride your vehicles. Please clean up your own house.”
Board members didn’t list any concrete plans for reform of the agency or transit police policy, but Stephanie Gidigbi, a board member who represents the District, expressed support for an independent review of internal affairs and procedures.
“As a rider of Metrorail and bus who happens to be a woman of color, I know what it means to stand on the platform and [feel] the hesitancy of watching Metropolitan Transit Police Department members,” Gidigbi told board members. “I also want to thank Chief Pavlik, who has continued to look for ways to hold himself and many of his staff accountable in the same ways.
“We recognize that we won’t always get it right. But I appreciate us really taking the chance to hold ourselves accountable in the process during this time,” said Gidigbi, who is the only voting board member of color and joined the panel in December. “And that this will not just be the beginning, but a continued dialogue as to how we ensure that riders and our employees are receiving what we’ve committed to and providing safe, equitable, reliable and cost-effective public transportation within the community.”
In an interview after the board meeting, Wiedefeld expanded on his pledge to bring about more racial equality, saying the agency, like society, had “much more to do.”
He said he plans to build upon cultural awareness programs and classes that started last year with Metro leadership, and to expand cultural training systemwide. He also said the agency hadn’t ignored complaints against transit police. He said a law enforcement consultant was hired earlier this year to review the department’s policing practices, but had only recently started work.
“We’re feeling the heartache and fatigue of the pandemic, the economic anxiety it has caused, and now there’s renewed attention on the issues of long-standing racial injustice in this country and in this region,” Wiedefeld said at the meeting. “The region needs us now more than ever. Keep going even when we feel like it’s too much. And as we move forward, we will continue to work to build an inclusive Metro community that supports our employees and customers with fair and equitable policies. And I join with the board in that effort and look forward to work with the board as we pursue ways to improve the system from a racial discrimination perspective and a social inequity perspective.”