Metro nabbed a poster child for fare evasion this week.

On Thursday, two officers at the Minnesota Avenue station saw a man slip through the fare gates without paying, followed him to the platform and asked to see his SmarTrip card, the transit agency said in a news release.

“Don’t even check it,” the fare jumper was quoted as telling the officers, because the card had a negative balance.

Turns out this wasn’t a hard-luck passenger who was caught short on his SmarTrip balance. He was a habitual fare evader and a paroled criminal, according to police. He was also illegally armed, Metro said.

Luckily, when the suspect reached for his 9mm semiautomatic handgun, he only tossed it onto the tracks. The two officers sustained minor injuries while wrestling the suspect into custody. A Metro spokesman said it was the suspect’s fifth stop this year for fare evasion; he received citations for four instances of fare evasion at stations inside the District before Thursday’s arrest.

Thursday’s arrest shows why Metro’s crackdown on fare evasion is a reasonable policy  — and why calls to look the other way on such a minor offense are misguided, if well-intentioned.

Metro’s FairShare initiative — carried out this year by Metro Transit Police with help from regional law enforcement  — has led to 6,961 citations for fare evasion in the first six months of 2017, more than double the number issued in 2016. Metro says the crackdown was launched not just to boost compliance at the fare gate but as part of a broader strategy to reduce assaults on bus drivers and other staff.

It’s not unlike the fiercely debated “broken windows” policy first championed by the New York City Police Department more than 30 years ago. The idea is that reinforcing basic codes of public behavior helps prevent more serious offenses from occurring. Detractors say the policy has been counterproductive and led to biased law enforcement against minorities.

A June 2016 report by the NYPD’s inspector general questions the link between enforcing the law against quality-of-life violations and a decline in violent crime. It found uneven quality-of-life enforcement around the city and higher rates of enforcement in precincts with higher proportions of black or Hispanic residents.

In analyzing the complex and, at times, contradictory correlation between quality-of-life enforcement and violent crimes, however, the report also found that higher violent crime rates do “potentially” explain higher quality-of-life enforcement rates in such neighborhoods. The report is more cautionary than an NYPD analysis issued just a year earlier that touted a strong link between enforcing the law against petty crimes, such as fare evasion, to prevent more serious crimes.

Here’s how journalist Nicole Gelinas explained the policy’s effect on New York City’s subways:

“[If] you go after some of these smaller bad behaviors, you create an environment that encourages people to be law-abiding,” Gelinas said, while discussing her 2016 City Journal article ‘How Gotham Saved Its Subways.’
“And the subways had one advantage in that they are a closed system.  You have to pay to get in.  The subway system has certain rules and regulations that don’t exist upstairs.  For example, you can’t walk between subway cars, that’s illegal.  And so the police can stop you.  And by making these stops, the police found they would often find illegal weapons, guns, knives, they would find people who were wanted on violent charges.  Even just standing at the subway gates and waiting for people to enter without paying, a disproportionate number of those people were entering without paying so that they could commit other crimes.”

Gelinas went on to say that the teenagers who killed Utah tourist Brian Watkins in a 1990 subway robbery had boarded the train without paying. It was also Watkins’s death that led to a broader crackdown on street crime, the New York Daily News reported.

Metro’s fare-evasion policy also appears to have an obvious, if unstated, political aim. The extra enforcement comes as Metro is scraping for extra money to rebuild and maintain the system, including a renewed appeal for dedicated funding. The highly anticipated report by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood says Metro needs at least $500 million a year in additional funds. LaHood’s report, citing a “rough estimate,” also says as much as $18 million a year could be saved by reducing fare evasion.

Even if the sum’s less, the bigger point is that when you’re asking taxpayers in three regional jurisdictions, not to mention the federal government, to shell out more in taxes or fees for Washington’s transit system, every bit counts — and it also doesn’t look good if you’re all but inviting some people to ride free.

It’s no wonder Metro was quick to spread the word about the arrest of a fare evader with a gun. So meet Alontae Markell Hickman, 21, of Southeast Washington — Metro’s new poster child for fare evasion.

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