At the Van Ness station platform on a recent morning, three men wearing Muni uniforms stood alongside others waiting to board the next light-rail vehicle, chatting among themselves. The moment an inbound, two-car J-Church train arrived, the men broke off their conversation and methodically entered through different doors -- one at the front of the first car, the second at the rear of the same car and the third at the rear of the last car.
"Hi, good morning," Stan Lui said once he was inside the car. "Passes, please. Transfers."
Passengers began shifting in their seats. Some groaned, others rolled their eyes and one rider bolted out the one unmanned door.
Lui and his two co-workers, using handheld devices, scanned riders' Clipper cards and Muni tickets and checked the date and time of transfers. Kevin Smith, 48, who scanned a woman's Clipper card, found it had not been tagged and contained only 60 cents -- insufficient for the $2 one-way fare. After some back-and-forth, Smith let her off at the Montgomery station platform.
"I will give you a chance," he said. "Go load your card, ma'am."
"Yeah, I'll load it," she said, walking away irritated. "I always do."
Upon getting off, the three fare inspectors encountered a man lying against a wall between the two platforms with his belongings scattered on the ground. They asked him, too, for his proof of payment, and when he failed to come up with it, they escorted him out.
"Thank you for allowing your tax dollars to go here, asshole," the distraught individual yelled from outside the fare gate doors.
"You're f---ing this, you're f---ing that," said Sgt. Larry Nichol, supervisor for the other two men. "I used to keep a journal of what people say to me."
In the nine months that Lui, 33, has been a fare inspector, his impression from the public he has direct contact with is they generally don't like him and his colleagues in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Proof of Payment Unit.
"I hear from people that the No. 1 hated ones are parking control officers, police officers and fare inspectors," Lui said. "That's how I see it, because when people verbally abuse you, that means they don't like you."
Catch me if you can
The SFMTA began employing fare inspectors in 1999 as a pilot program with 18 inspectors who patrolled only railway vehicles. The pilot has since become a permanent, growing program with 13 new inspectors hired last year to bring the total to 55 -- 33 men and 22 women.
Increased manpower and even more positions opening up as early as December have boosted the number and frequency of inspections in each of San Francisco's 10 police districts. Up to 20 inspectors get deployed daily to a random district or districts within close proximity to each other.
"I call it spreading the love around because we don't want to make it so that one group thinks we're concentrating on them," Nichol said.
Inspectors are catching fare evaders throughout The City and offenders aren't race-, gender-, age- or income-specific. They've cited homeless individuals to men in fancy suits who keep a charged Clipper cards but don't tag them.
"Sometimes you hear people go, 'Do I look like a fare evader?' And I say, 'I don't know, what does a fare evader look like?'" Nichol said.
Fare evasion results in an estimated $19 million of lost revenue annually for the SFMTA, and without the $6.5 million fare inspector program, that amount of money lost would be "much worse," according to SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose.
Kathy Broussard, acting manager of the Proof of Payment Unit, which includes fare inspectors, said it is worth the cost since fare evaders get $109 tickets while paying passengers see that Muni's policy, echoed by the on-board announcement, "Please pay your fair share," is being enforced.
"It's a win-win," she said.
In her 7½ years as a fare inspector prior to managing the unit, Broussard said she once wrote 45 tickets in a day, and a fare inspector has issued as many as 65 in an eight-hour shift. At the end of their shifts on that recent weekday, Smith, Nichol and Lui had issued 16 tickets between them.
"Nothing is frowned upon. We don't have a quota," Broussard said. "What we have is a performance standard. We came out with an amount that a fare inspector would be able to produce within an eight-hour period and it's very low -- five. That's less than one citation per hour."
Currently, fare inspectors cover 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., but that doesn't mean fare evaders are safe during their off hours. The Police Department has a surge team assigned to buses in different districts, on the lookout for crime as well as fare evasion.
Despite its challenges, the job -- which under the new tentative labor agreement will pay $31.43 per hour by October and $35.54 by 2017 -- draws thousands of applicants to the agency and is "highly competitive," Broussard said.
A fare balance
Fare evaders can run, but can't always hide.
On that recent weekday morning, after removing the man lying down on the Montgomery station platform, Lui, Smith and Nichol positioned themselves inside the fare gates to check customers getting off the trains. There, they recognized the man they saw earlier escape out the unpatrolled J-Church train.
"It's funny how that works out," Nichol said as Smith approached the man. Learning he was a visitor, Smith gave him a break and let him buy a ticket.
On the F-Market and Wharves line, which, like other above-ground vehicles, inspectors try to hold for less than a minute, Smith encountered San Francisco resident Reina Martinez, 42, who told Smith she had accidentally taken the wrong Clipper card while rushing out in the morning. She showed him paper résumés she had with her to apply for jobs. Smith said she could explain her case to a hearing officer and wrote her a ticket.
"This can't be," Martinez said in Spanish. "I think he should have been a little more flexible."
On the same streetcar, San Francisco resident Mona Shath, 42, smiled as Smith scanned her Clipper card.
"It happens very often and I guess it slows things down but you have to pay," she said. "I do hate to see people who can't afford it suffer."
Inspectors sometimes make exceptions for patrons who didn't pay but whose Clipper cards show a history of paid fares, and for tourists who can show an itinerary.
But sometimes, issuing a citation is necessary, said Smith, who has seen offenders develop a new respect for the work that the unit does.
"When people are upset, they're not upset at me the person, they're upset at me the uniform, so I don't take it personally," Smith said. "That gets me through my day."