Metro Transit has stepped up a previously ill-defined “anti-harassment” initiative to promote “respect, kindness and inclusion among our riders.” This has manifested in station announcements, signage, and scrolling messages on buses that a lot of people probably find innocuous, or even welcome.
However, the way it has chosen to go about this campaign is itself hostile, implictly threatening, and disrespectful. It’s also retrogressive, and it particularly chafes in Minneapolis, where the City has recently signaled its will to move away from similar tactics and policies because of the harm they do to minority communities.
What specifically is Metro Transit doing wrong? They’re announcing, on lighted signs and in amplified announcements that the Metro Transit Code of Conduct is subject to police enforcement. That is, it’s gone from a campaign of social encouragement, to a command with the explicit (repeated) threat of force under color of law.
Look, first of all, even if it’s true that Metro Transit police will enforce the code of conduct, announcing it repeatedly is unpleasant and makes the transit system feel like a dystopian police state. I don’t understand how anyone thought this would create a positive welcoming atmosphere. I hate having my own transit authority constantly remind me that I’m there at the pleasure of the police.
But the problem is deeper. The Code of Conduct is too vague and not susceptible to equitable enforcement. Here’s something that the code of conduct says: “Use only G-rated words Using profanity or derogatory statements is not tolerated on buses or trains.” Neat idea! Wildly overbroad and probably illegal to enforce.
No derogatory statements? G-rated words??? Absurd. How many bus riders could this screw? Okay, now think about which ones will get targeted for enforcement, and which ones will escape police scrutiny. Yet Metro Transit believes, and is willing to announce, that the police can enforce this?
Their urging riders to treat one another with “respect, kindness, and inclusivity” is also vague and unenforceable. Yet police aren’t known for their recognition of nuance when it comes to exercising what they view as their authority to act.
Empowering the police to enforce a vague and overbroad Code of Conduct is inviting them to exercise considerable discretion and, effectively, to abuse the power of the state. Inevitably, discretionary enforcement and abuses land hardest and most frequently on minority populations, as Minneapolis has realized.
Here are some of the things said when Minneapolis repealed its “livability” laws about spitting and lurking:
Mayor Hodges: “These two ordinances are antiquated, unnecessary, and unfairly affect people of color in our community. It’s about time we got them off the books.”
Blong Yang: “It seems to be criminalizing certain types of thought in Minneapolis. Not actual crimes.”
Cam Gordon: “This isn’t a police problem. This isn’t an attorney problem. This isn’t a court problem. … This our problem. We need to own it. We need to look at the role we play in it. And we need to see how we can change it.”
You get the picture. It is basically guaranteed that police enforcement of the Metro Transit Code of Conduct is a return to the sort of “livability crimes” that result in selective enforcement and police harassment of minorities that Minneapolis is moving away from. That’s why it is so jarring to me to have this antiquated idea of police-enforced livability bused back in by Metro Transit administrators. They apparently haven’t heard about the disproportionate impact that police enforcement of vague, feel-good policies winds up having on minority communities.
I fully support the idea of promoting and encouraging the values of respect, kindness, and inclusivity, on transit, and elsewhere. But the threats of police involvement are over the top, and frankly seem intended to intimidate significant portions of our community that have legitimate reasons for antipathy toward police. Intimidation and the prospect of broad, unequally applied police discretion are neither inclusive nor respectful.
Minneapolis has rejected this kind of invitation to abuse of police discretion, unequal enforcement, and disproportionate impact. We should tell Metro Transit that their decision to explicitly bring this practice back to Minneapolis isn’t welcome.