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Why Are Cops Handcuffing Churro Vendors?

One of two women who were cuffed by the NYPD for selling churros in the subway. Photo: Rafael Martinez

Americans are waking up to the fact that police are unnecessarily harassing people of color for minor violations on public transit and demanding that cops back off.

Transit officers have been aggressively cornering black and Latino passengers in subway systems while passengers have filmed the confrontations to draw attention to overpolicing that often drifts into misconduct or brutality.

Several incidents sparked a furious backlash in New York and San Francisco, where hundreds of people demonstrated against police overreach in the past two weeks and questioned who is actually benefiting from "broken windows"-style police tactics.

"When we're talking quality-of-life type laws intended ensure that some folks aren't bothered by the presence of people at expense of criminalizing those people, we have to look at priorities as a society," said Policy Link Managing Director Anand Subramanian. "Should we be caring more about that life or someone who doesn't have time to eat between jobs?"

The hysteria over clamping down on fare evasion has led to excessive policing in vast swaths of public space across multiple cities. Cops are flooding subways and their inherent biases against black and Latinos enable them to racially profile passengers for  nonsense "quality-of-life" infractions like eating or sleeping on the subway even though cops are aware of what they're doing.

Last Monday, a BART police officer confronted Steve Foster for eating a breakfast sandwich on the Pleasant Hill station platform in East Bay before handcuffing him. Three back-up officers arrived and escorted Foster through the station for "resisting arrest" even though he was never arrested. Foster later received a citation for eating, which is prohibited in the subway, a BART spokeswoman said.

The episode prompted BART riders to hold a lunchtime "eat in" on Saturday inside the Embarcadero station in San Francisco. Several demonstrators told local media they ate food all the time inside stations and that Foster was singled out because he is black.

"I realize some things are illegal with our penal code, but I want to be mindful of how we're using resources to enforce our system," BART Board of Directors member Janice Li, who joined the protest, told ABC7.

BART officials spent $59 million to hire 19 new officers to enforce "quality-of-life" issues — but now had to apologize for the work they were doing.

“Enforcement of infractions such as eating and drinking inside our paid area should not be used to prevent us from delivering on our mission to provide safe, reliable, and clean transportation,” BART General Manager Bob Powers said in a statement. “I apologize to Mr. Foster, our riders, employees, and the public who have had an emotional reaction to the video.”

No apologies have been forthcoming from New York officials after cops harassed a black teenager and a middle-aged Latina woman in two high profile incidents over the past two weeks. In fact, Mayor Bill de Blasio — who ran for president earlier this year ... as a progressive — has steadfastly defended the police.

In October, cops drew their guns and swarmed an unarmed 19-year-old man for allegedly skipping over a turnstile last month. During the same weekend, cops were seen brutalizing youths on a subway platform. Then on Friday several cops handcuffed a woman selling churros in Brooklyn's Broadway Junction station and confiscated her cart. Police also detained a second vendor offering churros inside another Brooklyn station on Monday, hours before city officials were holding a rally to protest the arrest of the first incident.

Other cities have had similar episodes of police overreach that sparked widespread outrage. In 2018, an LAPD officer scolded a 18-year-old student for having her foot on a subway seat and pulled her arm and dragged her off the Red Line Metro train and cuffed her in the station when she wouldn't remove her foot. And this past June, a Metro Transit officer abruptly tasered and arrested a man in Washington D.C.'s U Street Station who approached and asked two other transit cops not to hurt a teenage boy they had detained. The man is suing the three Metro cops for excessive force and for suffering chronic pain, liver damage, insomnia, post-concussive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder from the horrible encounter.

The public is fed up with it. Nearly 1,000 people marched in downtown Brooklyn on Nov. 1 following the subway melee and activists on Monday called for fewer cops outside the Brooklyn subway station where the churro vendor was briefly detained.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who proposed spending $50 million per year to hire 500 additional officers to curb a supposed increase in fare evasion and homelessness in the subway, deflected blame for the encounter because NYPD officers, not the MTA cops he wants to hire, were involved. Mayor de Blasio was willing to comment because the police work for him — but he somehow found a way to argue that handcuffing struggling churro ladies and confiscating their livelihoods was the right thing to do.

"The facts are she was there multiple times and was told multiple times that’s not a place you can be and it’s against the law and it’s creating congestion and she shouldn’t have been there," he told reporters before doubling down in a subsequent interview on NY1 that people want to see more cops on the trains.

Other New York public officials have a very different view. A state lawmaker from Brooklyn, Julia Salazar, said the episode is a "snapshot of criminalizing poverty," and a Council Member from the same area, Brad Lander, added "we don't want to be a city where we pay public servants to arrest churro vendors." Lander is co-sponsoring a bill to lift caps on vendor licenses.

He also expressed an outrage that many are feeling, but few are can put into exactly the right words.

"I’ve gotten many thousands of complaints about subway service. About public safety. About safe streets. About housing affordability. Literally no one has ever complained to me about unlicensed churro-selling," he tweeted.

Public officials in New York and elsewhere have pitched increasing the police presence on transit systems as a way to curb violent crime as well as fare evasion. Major felonies have declined 1.4 percent in the first nine months of the year compared with 2018. Fare evasion however has quadrupled since 2011 and could cost the MTA $260 million in losses this year according to the transit authority's estimates. (Though maybe not, according to the agency's own inspector general.)

There's anecdotal evidence that people of color across the country are being harassed for minor violations that aren't meant to keep people safe, but there isn't enough transparency among law enforcement offices about complaints and arrests on transit systems, advocates say. But the insistence on police enforcing crimes of poverty needs to be challenged.

"Fare evasion, selling food and eating food this begs the question what our society's budgetary priorities are," Subramanian said. "Policing costs a lot of money and more investment in public transportation as opposed to more investment in policing transportation could address the root causes of poverty."

Some cities are moving in an opposite direction from New York and parts of the Bay Area. Philadelphia has decriminalized turnstile jumping and lowered fare evasion fines from $300 to $25. Both Seattle and Portland's transit systems have launched reduced fare program for low-income riders this decade. Portland's TriMet system enrolled more than 10,000 riders in its first seven months of operation. And Minnesota's Metro Transit has improved anti-bias and deescalation training for its police officers. New York also has a "Fair Fares" program that is expanding.

"There are several agencies point to trying to be less punitive with their enforcement strategies," TransitCenter spokesman Ben Fried told Streetsblog. "Right now New York definitely stands out in the way that is moving toward increased policing."

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