New York

BART Security App Promotes Racial Profiling, Critics Say

An East Bay Express investigation finds BART passengers who use the transit agency’s Watch app seem to be disproportionally complaining about African-Americans.

The idea was to have BART passengers tip off authorities when they spotted suspicious activity on their commutes through an app launched last August.

But an investigation by the East Bay Express reveals that BART riders seem to be profiling African-Americans: Passengers are disproportionately complaining about blacks for alleged crimes and non-crimes, from panhandling to talking loudly. The Express obtained 367 pages of data, containing 763 messages sent between April 7 and May 12, through the California Public Records Act.

In all, African-Americans were mentioned 68 percent of the time and whites were mentioned 19 percent of the time where race was described as a factor in complaints sent using the BART Watch App, the Express analysis concluded. However, blacks make up only 10 percent of BART ridership and whites make up 48 percent, according to a 2008 BART study.

BART police representatives told the Express that the app has become a valuable tool and they treat these passenger alerts simply as tips.

“We want our riders to use this to report suspicious activity, crimes in progress, things like that,” BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said.

The app has several pre-set categories from which to choose including: "robbery/theft," "sexual assault/lewd behavior," "disruptive behavior" and "suspicious activity."

African-Americans were most likely to be complained about by other passengers under the "disruptive behavior" category, the Express noted, where wary riders sent alerts to BART police that they feared other commuters of color were playing music, singing, dancing, talking loud or yelling, taking up more than one seat and smelling bad.

One alert, sent on May 12, read: "A homeless man looks older Muslim (a regular on bart trains) is smelling up the whole bart." (sic)

Reporter Darwin Bond-Graham told NBC Bay Area, out of the 763 alerts between April and May, only a handful were for crimes that would have called for an officer to investigate.

“When it comes to security, we’d rather we have that one that was successful and then deal with the 100 that is just basically junk mail,” Trost said.

But, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights Executive Director Zachary Norris says the app isn’t just a harmless tool, it’s promoting racial discrimination.

“I think the way in which it furthers racial profiling is by giving people an additional tool to do racial profiling,” Norris said.

Norris’s argument is that the app contributes to a culture of fear and suspicion, rather where people receive “the resources they need to do well.”

Norris said the $265,000 spent on the app could have much better spent. BART says the money came from a security grant, so it could only be spent on security, and other transit agencies were offering the app to their customers.

The Express noted that similar apps are used by transit agencies in Massachusetts, Atlanta, Georgia, and Niagara, New York, and by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. 

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