Does Bay Area Transit App Make Racial Profiling Easier?

BART Deputy Chief: “It’s not something we can control.”

A protest against police violence at an S.F. BART station earlier this year (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

It may seem that everyone on the train has eyes glued to phone, but when it comes to transit agencies across the U.S. rolling out mobile apps for riders, some people have raised concerns about the high-tech approach when it comes to equitable transportation access. Now, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the year-old BART Watch app, which lets users report suspicious activity or crimes on public transit, is under scrutiny.

Using the BART Watch app, riders can upload photos and location information and text directly with BART officials when sending an “alert.” After reviewing a month’s worth of app records, Oakland alt weekly East Bay Express found a disproportionate amount of alerts sent via the app to show a bias against black passengers and homeless passengers. Of 763 messages, 198 used race to describe the suspect, and 134 of those descriptions (68 percent) identified suspects as black. The Express reports that a 2008 survey indicated that 10 percent of daily BART customers are black and 48 percent are white.

The data shows that BART riders report Blacks for both alleged crimes and non-crimes at disproportionate rates compared to other racial or ethnic groups, and that people perceived as being homeless are also being targeted with a high number of complaints, often for sleeping, smelling bad, and other non-crimes.

Some pre-set categories users can select from when issuing a complaint include “disruptive behavior,” “panhandling,” “suspicious activity,” and “other,” which together made up 109 of the complaints regarding passengers identified as black by alert senders.

“We’re getting a lot of reports, and a lot don’t rise to the level of criminal activity,” acknowledged BART Deputy Chief Benson Fairow to the East Bay Express. “But we hear about the problems and that’s what is important for us. So we appreciate getting the low-level stuff.”

Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, sees the app as a manifestation of racial profiling and the criminalization of poverty. “This appears to fit into a larger pattern of black people being criminalized for just being black … ,” Norris told the weekly. “The app should raise some questions about what we as Bay Area residents should be doing to tackle the problem of homelessness, or young people not being able to afford their fares.”

Fairow said he hadn’t noticed a trend in the races of people being reported via the app. “It’s not something we track because it’s not something we control,” he told the Express.

Marielle Mondon is an editor and freelance journalist in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Philadelphia City Paper, Wild Magazine, and PolicyMic. She previously reported on communities in Northern Manhattan while earning an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University.

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Tags: transit agenciesbig dataraceapps

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