About 10 minutes later, a San Francisco police officer boarded and asked Persson for his proof of payment. Persson handed over his Clipper card, which the officer tagged on the reader machine in the street car.
But the machine did not acknowledge Persson’s swipe, so the officer issued a fare evasion citation for $274.
“At first, I thought that maybe the problem is the system didn’t log my transaction at all,” said the 39-year-old software engineer, who checks his transactions on a regular basis.
Two days later, both transactions appeared on his log — one for $1.50 at 8:53 a.m. and another for no amount at 9:04 a.m.
Persson took the delay in the onboard Clipper reader to mean that without the handheld Clipper card readers that Muni’s own fare inspection officers use, SFPD cops are not using a valid method to verify proof of payment. But for the Police Department, it might be more of a matter of priorities.
Since 2001, the Police Department has required its officers to conduct two Muni inspections per shift. And though officers often check for fare evasion, Sgt. Danielle Newman said, it’s not high on their list.
“Yes, not paying your fare is an infraction, but that’s not the reason the bus inspection program was started,” she said. “There’s assaults, there’s robberies, you have cellphone thefts, you have gangs riding into rival gangs’ territory.
“We had a shooting last year on a Muni bus. So the purpose to have police on the bus is for that visual presence over crime.”
However, Cmdr. Mikail Ali, who works with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, told The San Francisco Examiner that the department found that a lot of crime on Muni was being committed by fare evaders.
Thirty officers in the force’s traffic unit were outfitted in 2011 with handheld devices to write traffic citations but they are not Clipper card readers. At that time, SFMTA discussed placing the handheld Clipper card devices in every police station.
But Wednesday, Ali said he conferred with transit agency proof-of-payment manager Chris Grabarkiewctz and they agreed that the handheld devices are “not necessary.”
“All of the information needed by the officer is obtained by swiping the Clipper card at the device near the driver’s seat,” Ali said. “The use or lack thereof within the last 90 minutes is determined by the officer swiping the card. That is all that is necessary.”
Instead of making handheld Clipper card readers available, the agencies decided to pair police officers with Muni fare inspectors 40 to 50 percent of the time, and there have been “no concerns” on the accuracy of law enforcement officers checking for fare payment without the handheld devices, SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said.
Ali noted he was aware of a Muni rider who complained of wrongfully receiving a fare evasion citation and that he has a court date.
“The officer indicated that the evidence showed that he did not swipe his card and that’s why he was given a citation,” Ali said.
Also in the mix is a delay in some Clipper card tagging.
When a Clipper card is used at a fare gate, the payment is deducted instantaneously. However, on moving vehicles a swipe might not be processed until the end of the vehicle’s shift, noted John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which administers the Clipper program.
“For a number of reasons, buses may be parked in a different area where the information is not able to be uploaded,” he said. “Yeah, we’d like all of this done instantaneously, but the system doesn’t quite work that way.”
Despite the possible delay in payment deduction, Goodwin said it was his understanding that proof of payment gets marked on the Clipper card. A circumstance like Persson’s, he said, sounds “very unusual.”
But that was not Persson’s point of view.
“I don’t think this is an isolated incident,” he said. “I think this can happen to a lot of people when you use cash on a Clipper card.”
Persson is scheduled to appear in court to contest his citation April 10.
Revenue from tickets issued by Muni fare inspectors go to the SFMTA’s operating budget, while tickets from police officers go into The City’s general fund. According to a 2009 study, the most recent data available, fare evasions cost the SFMTA about $19 million a year, Rose said.