Muni uses anti-terrorism funds to catch fare cheats 

click to enlarge While an increased police presence on Muni trains and buses has helped reduce crime, how the SFMTA is using counterterrorism funds is being questioned. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • mike koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • While an increased police presence on Muni trains and buses has helped reduce crime, how the SFMTA is using counterterrorism funds is being questioned.

Since 9/11, cities nationwide have been flooded with funding from the federal government to help prevent more terror attacks on the country.

The money goes to many efforts, like enhancing disaster preparedness across government agencies or beefing up anti-terrorism tactics in local police. It also makes its way to public-transit systems for various policing strategies.

In San Francisco, one of those strategies is catching fare cheats.

A San Francisco Examiner review of transit agency financial records revealed that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is using federal counterterrorism money to partially fund Muni fare enforcement by police officers. And although it might appear to skirt the intent of the Department of Homeland Security funding, that is not so clear.

What is clear is that the increased police presence on Muni, which is operated by the SFMTA, has brought crime and fare evasion down, transit officials said.

"Certainly what one would hope, but did not expect, is the dramatic result in the reduction in crime," Chris Grabarkiewctz, head of fare enforcement at the SFMTA, told The Examiner. "That was huge."

MUNI MONEY SAVER

Fears of increased fare evasion hit Muni in 2012, when the agency began all-door bus boarding. Muni officials said they lost more than $19 million a year in fare evasions before officers began to check for proof of payment, which has dropped to $17 million.

Muni's 55 fare-evasion officers, who often wear yellow vests, issued more than 59,000 fare-evasion citations in 2014 alone, according to the SFMTA. That figure does not include citations issued by police officers.

"No one enjoys having to ask for their fare, but it does have to be done," Grabarkiewctz said.

Another crime, smartphone theft, has also been increasing on Muni buses and trains in recent years. In response, the SFMTA requested increased police presence on vehicles. The SFMTA sought grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security for this.

The agency also used the funding for simulated emergencies, along with purchasing surveillance cameras with behavioral analysis software so advanced it would make Transportation Security Administration agents blush. And money paid for police services for special events that could potentially be terrorist targets, such as the civic celebrations that followed World Series victories by the Giants.

Following the police officer boost on Muni, overall crime fell 30 percent, according to the SFMTA, and cellphone thefts decreased 77 percent from May 2013 to May 2014.

FUNDING POLICE ON MUNI

The Police Department's Muni Task Force has one sergeant and seven officers, with a budget of about $1.4 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year. It is funded by the Department of Homeland Security. The SFMTA's Operational Package (OPACK) funds, as they are called, were also granted as far back as the 2009-10 fiscal year, when it received about $6.2 million.

In a 2014 email from the SFMTA to the Department of Homeland Security's Transit Security Grant Program, the SFMTA provided written narratives for how the 2009 funding was used.

For the increased police presence, the SFMTA wrote: "The SFMTA OPACK program conducted covert and overt counterterrorism operations on all SFMTA transit vehicles, subways and facilities. The program continues to be successful."

To be clear, the strategy to counter terrorists consists almost entirely of putting cops on the bus, as well as enhancing cameras.

The narrative then cited figures for decreased crime on Muni buses and trains, and it quoted Police Chief Greg Suhr as saying, "Having more uniformed SFPD on buses has proved to be a tremendous deterrent to crime."

Yet nowhere in the grant narrative did the SFMTA describe the officers' duties as ticketing Muni riders for fare evasions.

It is not necessarily against the intent of the federal funding to go after fare cheats. The Department of Homeland Security said the funding cannot be used for efforts that are not specified in the language of the grant, but someone would have to blow the whistle on an egregious use of the money. Essentially, police just have to perform more counterterrorism duties than fare enforcement efforts.

"Recipients are permitted by law to use the funding for nonterrorism related purposes as long as the investments have a nexus to terrorism prevention activities," Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Susan Hendrick told The Examiner.

If fare enforcement was ever called into question, the SFMTA and police would need to argue that it is part of their counterterrorism duties.

POLICE OBJECTIVES ON MUNI

The SFMTA denied that it ever asked the Police Department to enforce fare payments.

"I can't say their rationale on that," Grabarkiewctz said. "Our position is, indeed they are police officers and fare evasion is still included in the penal code."

But he repeated that crime and terrorism were the SFMTA's focus for police.

"We want to emphasize our priorities," Grabarkiewctz said. "At the same time, we're not in a position to tell them not to enforce the law. I'd have to refer you to the Police Department."

The Police Department's former top transit cop, Cmdr. Mikail Ali, declined to speak with The Examiner for this story. His replacement, Cmdr. Ann Mannix, said crime prevention is the main goal of Muni patrols, not fare enforcement.

"I would hope [crime] was always the focus," she said of her predecessor. "Is not paying a Muni fare a crime? Literally, it is. Is it the highest crime on the scale we're looking for? No."

Mannix added that "I can't say that fare-evasion tickets wouldn't be written, but it wouldn't be the objective."

Independently of the SFMTA's stated grant directives, however, the SFPD's officers began to issue citations for fare evasion, which The Examiner has photographically documented and the SFMTA has acknowledged. Muni's own fare- enforcement officers are paid out of Muni's operating budget, Grabarkiewctz said.

There is support for counterterrorism funding going toward fare evasion.

"Muni can use all the help and funds it can get," said Katie Haverkamp, a member of the SFMTA's Citizen Advisory Council, adding that SFMTA officers have limited enforcement powers.

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Bio:
Born and raised in San Francisco, Fitzgerald Rodriguez was a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and now writes the S.F. Examiner's political column On Guard. He is also a transportation beat reporter covering pedestrians, Muni, BART, bikes, and anything with wheels.
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