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Melissa Laws still does not know exactly what happened to her 13-year-old son on June 22, even though the incident went viral on social media. Metro Transit Police Officer Jonathan Costanzo tased Tapiwa Musonza, an unarmed black man who intervened when transit police detained Laws’ son. What led up to the police interaction that another Metro rider captured on her phone for 1 minute and 45 seconds and what followed largely remain a mystery to Laws.
“I didn’t understand why my child was handcuffed,” said Laws during a Council oversight roundtable on Metro Transit Police Department’s practices and its effect on communities of color. “There hasn’t been any notice or information as to what actually happened. I know why Mr. Musonza was tased, because he was that body of refuge for my son.”
At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who oversaw the joint-committee hearing on Tuesday, asked Laws if she heard anything from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority since the incident. She replied, “I have not.” She doesn’t even know if charges are pending. Yaida Ford, Musonza’s attorney,tells City Desk via email that Costanzo is still working for WMATA; meanwhile, Musonza can no longer work and is scarred by the tasing.
“I learned today, they have no accountability,” said Laws.
The takeaway from Tuesday’s hearing: Transit police has meager public oversight. Unlike Metropolitan Police Department, WMATA has immunity from most lawsuits, operates without a civilian complaint board, and provides limited public records. Experts that testified cited the structure of the interstate compact between D.C., Maryland, and Virginia as the reason why. With these constraints, lawmakers and public witnesses discussed ways to bring more accountability and transparency to WMATA.
By the end of the four-hour hearing, it became clear there was minimal trust between transit police and the communities they are supposed to serve. However, there is an appetite, particularly within the Council, to work to restore trust.
WMATA had a chance to defend itself. When given an opportunity to respond to cell phone videos and eyewitness accounts of alleged excessive force, Metro Transit Police Department Chief Ronald Pavlik said: “Social media unfortunately sensationalizes things sometimes and doesn’t give a full perspective. But anytime we do see allegations, we take them very seriously and conduct an internal investigation or refer to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
Pavlik repeatedly said he was open to ideas floated during the hearing, but it seems unlikely he’d enact any without a legislative push from the Council, and WMATA doesn’t directly answer to the Council. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen asked Pavlik if he’d consider having transit police wear body cameras, as MPD officers do, and he said he’s “looked at them, there’s pros and cons.” When White asked about a civilian oversight board to investigate complaints as opposed to having internal affairs do so, Pavlik said he’s generally open to ideas that improve the way WMATA does business. Allen and White both expressed interest in creating something like MPD’s Office of Police Complaints for transit police. (Currently, WMATA averages 75 to 80 citizen complaints a year, but it’s unclear whether residents know how to report incidents.)
Pavlik says his 500-plus officers receive at least 1,000 hours of basic training, including implicit bias and de-escalation. But when transit police are arresting someone, the protocol, no matter which jurisdiction, is to “meet force with force.”
Allen called attention to fare evasion, which can lead to excessive force. For example, transit police injured Diamond Rust by tackling her down for evading bus fare. As a result of this and other similar situations, the Council decriminalized fare evasion beginning in 2019, making it a civil crime punishable by a $50 fine. Allen used his time to set the record straight: Decriminalizing fare evasion does not mean more people are piggy-backing or tailgating, as WMATA suggested during last week’s board meeting on its budget proposal. WMATA says it will lose $40 million to fare evasion this year, but Pavlik acknowledged WMATA’s projection includes the rides of 15,000 students who haven’t received their Kids Ride Free cards.
“We have clearly shown through a year’s worth of data that attempting to enforce our way through fare evasion is a failed strategy and will not work. I find it frustrating and baffling that we do not have a greater sense of urgency from WMATA around how to work on designs that can decrease or eliminate fare evasion,” Allen told Pavlik. Allen says he’s looking into legislation to make Metro more affordable for lower income residents, but wouldn’t elaborate beyond that. (Apparently, At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds is ready to do this too.)
“From a transparency standpoint, I’m certainly troubled that the type of things that we expect out of MPD when it comes to use of force, stop data, the outcomes—that’s not reported. There’s nobody who gets that information, not even the board, as best I can tell,” Allen tells City Desk. (During the hearing, Pavlik said WMATA captures name, race, and reason for a stop in what’s called a “stop contact card,” but that data wasn’t public facing. When asked why it isn’t publicly available like, say, crime data, Pavlik admitted he didn’t have a satisfactory answer.) “But I was heartened, I heard Chief Pavlik seemed to express a great openness to explore that,” Allen adds.
Emily Gunston, with Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, says the way to get more information is to amend the interstate compact, which is WMATA’s guiding document. So when the Council appoints new members to represent D.C. on the Metro board, they could prioritize candidates who make commitments to seeking information from transit police and auditing it.
“[Pavlik] did not make any commitments of making more information public. A lot of this information—there’s no reason it shouldn’t be public. The policies are the easiest examples. He also said they do an annual force report, they have stop data. They could provide all of that to the public, they could provide analysis to the public,” Gunston tells City Desk. “These are all things major urban police departments do and they do it because they know in order to be effective, they have to work with the communities they serve.”
The backdrop to all of this is that black and brown residents don’t see transit police as being part of their own communities, something Pavlik conceded to and asked the Council for help with. Bennie Patterson, a retired Metro transit police officer, says white officers commonly referred to minority areas, such as the Anacostia Metro Station, as “the jungle.”
Given that systemic racism and classism play a role in police interactions with communities of color, D.C. resident Jay Brown suggested a so-called guardian angel program, where community members could ride Metro to provide security in addition to policing. They’d serve as trained intervention specialists. The idea was supported by other public witnesses, including Laws.
“There are trust factors that are so deeply rooted when it comes to police. … Just the mere sight of a uniform versus somebody who is consistent in their community that they can communicate with … it just tends to bring down that energy,” said Brown. “We keep each other safe.”