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Wash. DC: Metro delays vote on proposal that would ban passengers arrested for sex offense

Source: 7/29/21

Metro’s board on Thursday postponed a vote on a plan that would let transit police ban someone arrested on suspicion of a sex crime or an offense involving a dangerous weapon. The delay came after civil liberties groups and activists voiced opposition to the measure and asked the transit agency to reconsider.

Members of the board’s safety committee had unanimously approved the proposed ban two weeks ago, setting the stage for a final vote of the full board. Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg pulled the measure off the agenda minutes before the vote was to occur.

Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said the vote was tabled because the board requested additional information from Metro staff and the jurisdictions served by the transit agency.

“A few board members had some questions, and we plan to bring the item back in September,” Smedberg said later in an email.

Metro Transit Police say reports of indecent exposure have more than doubled this year compared with the same period in 2019. Police say low ridership on trains and buses during the pandemic has given offenders less fear of being caught. Officers argue that their options are limited in such cases because courts often release suspects on the same day of an arrest, allowing offenders to return to subway stations, trains or buses.

The proposed ban would allow police to restrict anyone arrested on suspicion of a sex crime or gun offense from the transit system for two weeks after a first offense, a month after a second offense and a year after a third offense.

Critics say offenders would be punished without court proceedings or a conviction. Metro Transit Police Chief Ronald A. Pavlik Jr. has countered that officers would not enforce the ban unless a violator is caught committing a subsequent crime — an action that would trigger a trespass charge.

The proposal comes as the agency is hoping to lure passengers back after losing more than three-quarters of its ridership during the pandemic. Police experts say trauma from sex offenses and fear of such assaults can cause riders to abandon transit, creating even emptier spaces for crimes such as indecent exposure and sexual battery to proliferate.

Opposition to the proposal grew this week ahead of Thursday’s meeting, as civil rights advocates said the proposal granted unchecked power to a police department that D.C. Council members, the American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights groups say has a history of using excessive force and making unnecessary stops.

Defund MPD, a group that advocates for cutting the D.C. police budget in half and “firing officers who violate our civil rights,” according its website, has become a vocal opponent of the transit police proposal. The group organized a rally Tuesday near the home of Metro board member Tom Bulger, who represents the District.

Bulger said protesters stood and chanted for 45 minutes until D.C. police officers asked them to leave.

“Seventy-five kooks blew their blow horns and scared … my wife,” he said.

Bulger said the vote Thursday was delayed, in part, because the D.C. attorney general’s office had questions about how the policy would be enforced. Lawyers from the office have scheduled meetings with Metro’s general counsel, Bulger said.

After the vote was tabled Thursday, Defund MPD tweeted that more than 1,000 people had sent letters to the Metro board opposing “their attempt to expand power for police.” The board delayed the vote until its next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 9.

The American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. and more than 40 other organizations — including the Public Defender Service for D.C., the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and Sunrise D.C. — also sent board members a letter saying the policy would give a department with a “troubling history of excessive force tactics” more power to stop Black riders for no reason.

“Even if Metro Transit police had just a stellar reputation for policing, the idea of having a policy where someone would be deprived without access of transit without any meaningful due process [is wrong]. We have a legal process in place, and we believe people are innocent,” said Nassim Moshiree, policy director of ACLU-D. C. “There’s just been very little to no evidence that these policies serve as a deterrent for unwanted behavior.”


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