BART Vows to Improve Racial Disparities in Policing After NBC Bay Area Report

The transit agency's announcement comes in the wake of an NBC Bay Area investigative series that revealed questionable practices during a more than year-long BART police operation

NBC Universal, Inc.

The BART Police Department on Thursday unveiled plans to begin collecting racial data during each and every police stop throughout the transit system.

California’s Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA), passed by the legislature in 2015, requires law enforcement agencies across the state to collect demographic data during all police stops by April 2023.  BART, however, just announced it hopes to begin complying with the mandate by October of this year.

BART’s promise to improve its efforts in gathering demographic data comes in the wake of an NBC Bay Area investigation that revealed a complete lack of racial data collection during an ongoing police operation at BART’s Embarcadero Station.

The fact that it hasn't been collected ... does cause deep concern.

Lateefah Simon, BART Director
BART Director Lateefah Simon
NBC Bay Area
BART District 7 Director Lateefah Simon said increased collection of racial data during police stops is needed to in order to better understand how to implement reforms inside BART's police department (Jan. 12, 2021).

“The fact that it hasn't been collected and you all have found that, does cause deep concern,” said Lateefah Simon, who sits on BART’s Board of Directors.  “A progressive policing institution is one that makes decisions based on data, makes decisions based not on anecdotal feelings, not emotions, but data.”

'DERAILED' digital series leads to changes inside BART

NBC Bay Area first exposed the lack of racial data collection in DERAILED, a digital investigative series squarely focused on Silicon Valley’s infamous transit system. The online investigation uncovered questionable police practices inside BART, including the agency’s process for removing passengers from trains if they cannot prove they paid the required fare.

NBC Bay Area
Senior Investigative Reporter Bigad Shaban launched DERAILED: Season 2 in September to examine the impact of COVID-19 on the embattled transit system.

As documented in episode 4 of DERAILED: Season 2, BART officers sometimes forcibly remove passengers as part of a year-long police operation at the Embarcadero Station. Beginning at about 5:30 a.m., a team of officers work alongside fare inspectors, often five days a week, through the early morning hours to check if passengers have paid the required fare. Those who have not paid are asked to leave, but can be physically removed by police if they refuse to exit the station. 

As BART’s police department grapples with a loss of funding, an NBC Bay Area investigation raises serious questions about a year-long BART police operation and its potential impact on Black riders. After obtaining and reviewing more than 12,000 criminal citations issued by BART police, the Investigative Unit exposes a serious disparity in how often Black passengers are cited by BART officers.

For more than a year, racial data still not collected during BART police operation

The little-known operation dates back to Sept. 30, 2019. Since the onset, BART police has opted not to dole out citations to those passengers caught on BART trains without proof of payment. A BART spokesperson says since citations are not handed out, officers are not required to collect demographic data from those passengers asked to leave, even if those riders are forcibly dragged from the station by officers. With no paper trail, it’s difficult to know if certain groups of riders are being disproportionately impacted.

The lack of data collection came as a surprise to BART board members. In part, because BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez told the board such racial information is being gathered by officers.

During prepared remarks at a BART board meeting on June 25 of last year, Alvarez told the public “the BART Police Department collects comprehensive demographic data on all stops.”

It's clearly not on all stops...

BART Director Bevan Dufty addresses the lack of racial data collection during a year-long BART police operation

It's clearly not on all stops,” said Bevan Dufty, a BART Director representing central San Francisco.

Dufty said he first learned about the lack of data collection after “binge-watching” DERAILED. The day after the NBC Bay Area series posted online, Dufty cited the reporting during a BART board meeting and announced he had taken his concerns about the need for increased data gathering directly to Alvarez and BART’s general manager, Bob Powers.

Bevan Dufty, BART Director
NBC Bay Area
BART District 9 Director Bevan Dufty said he first learned about the lack of racial data collection during the Embarcadero Station police operation after he "binge-watched" DERAILED, NBC Bay Area's digital investigative series about BART (January 12, 2021).

“They are going to come together and figure out how we can go about doing this,” Dufty said during that Sept. 10 meeting.

Dufty made those comments four months ago, however, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit has learned nothing about the police operation at Embarcadero Station has changed.

Alvarez and Powers declined to be interviewed.

BART doesn't collect racial data on "all stops," so what did Police Chief mean?

A BART spokesperson told NBC Bay Area when Alvarez spoke about BART collecting “comprehensive” racial data during “all stops,” he was only referring to police stops where citations are issued or members of the public are being interviewed.

BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez
NBC Bay Area
BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez promises his department will begin collecting demographic data during all police stops by October 2021.

Simon said he she unsure why an officer forcibly removing a passenger off a train would not quality as a “police stop.”

“If there are interactions, especially difficult interactions, we need to understand why,” she said. “I think the officers need to do their job and report the data every day.”

The racial data BART does regularly collect shows a disproportionate impact of law enforcement on riders of color.

BART commissions national research center to bolster 'progressive policing'

At BART’s request, the Center for Policing Equity – a nonprofit research firm based at Yale University – examined the prevalence of racial disparities inside the BART police department in a newly released report.

The 59-page study noted similar findings to what NBC Bay Area reported last year regarding racial disparities: about half of all BART police stops involve black people even though black passengers only make up about 9% of the ridership. In fact, the report notes BART police officers stop black riders at a rate eight times higher than white passengers.

A sizable percentage of records were missing racial data for riders

The Center for Policing Equity comments on the lack of racial data during five of the six years of BART crime records it examined

The study examined BART crime records from 2012 to 2017 and found that during five of those six years, “a sizable percentage of records were missing racial data for rider stops.”  The report does note that such data collection improved “significantly” by 2017.

However, demographic data still is not being collected as part of BART’s early morning police morning operation, which means it is possible BART’s racial disparity could be even worse.

In response to questions from the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, a BART spokesperson said the agency now plans to begin collecting demographic data during all police stops by October – more than a year in advance of the state’s April 2023 mandate.

“I appreciate the investigative journalism,” Simon told NBC Bay Area.  “All government agencies need to have watchdogs within them and outside, and it gives us the opportunity to address the issue.”

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