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Feds investigating Metro fare enforcement after discrimination complaint

FILE PHOTO: Metro is defending its fare enforcement after a federal complaint accused the agency of discrimination in disproportionately citing black riders.
FILE PHOTO: Metro is defending its fare enforcement after a federal complaint accused the agency of discrimination in disproportionately citing black riders.
Steve Hymon/Metro

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The U.S. Department of Transportation has notified the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority that it is investigating a civil rights complaint filed against the transit agency.

The Community Strategy Center, an activist group that is the parent organization of the Bus Riders Union and advocates labor causes, accuses Metro and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department of racial profiling and stop and frisk tactics as part of their fare enforcement operations. Sheriff's deputies police the trains, buses and stations under a Metro contract.

The group cites statistics that it said shows black riders were ticketed disproportionately for fare evasion between 2012 and 2015. Those riders made up only 19 percent of all passengers during that period, but they received half of all citations, according to the group.

The complaint accuses Metro of violating Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits agencies that receive federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.

Metro officials said they intend to work with the Community Strategy Center to settle the complaint voluntarily, but they deny that Metro has a stop and frisk policy or targets specific individuals.

"Metro conducts 100 percent fare compliance checks on trains and at stations and on buses, and what that means is that no single individual is targeted," said Metro spokesman Rick Jager. "All passengers are checked regardless of their status."

It's not clear how long the federal transportation department investigation will take, although it will include interviews and reviews of documents. If Metro is found in violation of the civil rights law, the agency could be made to change its operations or risk losing federal funding.

Metro is transferring its fare enforcement from the sheriff’s department to civilian security workers as it reconsiders its policing contract.

The agency is also moving to decriminalize fare evasion for youth, potentially eliminating fines for riders under 18. L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has supported the move, cited statistics in November that show black and Latino youth are disproportionately ticketed for fare evasion.

Encounters with law enforcement can have lasting negative consequences for the young riders, he said.