By Janon Fisher
March 04, 2019
A New York University professor's turnstile jumping summons at a Harlem train station with malfunctioning MetroCard machines has prompted civil rights advocates to call on the NYPD's inspector general to probe racial disparities in fare evasion enforcement.
The Legal Aid Society fired off a letter last week to Inspector General Phil Eure asking him to look into a January ticket that Prof. Terrance Coffie received for going through the security gate at the St. Nicholas Ave. station when none of the MetroCard machines were working properly.
Coffie, an adjunct professor who teaches about community policing and discretionary enforcement, says he was on his way to work on Jan. 11 when he realized his MetroCard was out of money.
He had ignored people clustered around the station's three machines as he headed to the turnstile. Now, he realized the crowd had formed because the machines were only taking coins.
"I don't walk around with three dollars worth of coins in the morning," he said.
Faced with the decision to use the security gate or be late for work, he followed many of the other morning commuters and bypassed the turnstile.
Moments later, he said, he was approached by four plainclothes police officers regarding his fare evasion.
When Coffie explained that the machines were malfunctioning, one of the officers said that the department and the MTA knew of the problem.
"That's when the situation really kicked in," the professor said. "Are you saying to me that you are consciously aware that there is a malfunction, but instead of assisting the patrons, what you chose to do is be in a disclosed location to surveil the situation and issue summonses?"
Coffie, who studies police-community relations, said this flies in the face of what his research has determined builds trust between police and minority neighborhoods.
Annoyed, Coffie reached in his pocket for his phone to record the exchange, prompting one the officers to order him to remove his hands and threatening to handcuff him.
"I saw where a minor interaction could have been escalated into something more -- that makes the headlines," he said.
In the end, the cops issued a $100 ticket for fare evasion and everyone walked away.
The MTA has said that fare evasion costs the troubled transit system $215 million every year. Statistics show that 90% of the tickets issued were to black and Hispanic riders. The department still has not released full data regarding turnstile jumping.
Legal Aid lawyers say that Coffie's encounter shows that the NYPD targets minority neighborhoods with their "fare evasion strike teams."
"It's a wrong-headed approach to try to bridge budget woes on the backs of riders," Legal Aid lawyer Benjamin Rutkin-Becker said.
Both cops and transit officials denied that they target minority communities for fare enforcement.
"We're committed to a fair response to a citywide problem and are categorically opposed to any inappropriate targeting," transit spokesman Shams Tarek said.
Police said they are being more lenient on transit scofflaws and are posting signs to remind people that it's illegal.
"The NYPD has implemented a new fare evasion policy, moving from arrest to summonses, and continues to work closely with the MTA to increase awareness with signage giving people very direct warnings that fare evasion is illegal."
Police said riders can appeal a summons using an online form.