Phoenix police use stop-and-frisk tactics on light rail fare sweeps, groups allege




Five Phoenix police officers are visible in this picture from another officer’s body-worn camera during a fare sweep Nov. 13 on the light rail platform at 19th Avenue and Camelback Road. Photo courtesy Phoenix Police Department.

Advocates for working-class minority communities and immigrant rights activists are criticizing the Phoenix Police Department and Valley Metro over security sweeps on the light rail transit system that they likened to stop-and-frisk tactics that disproportionately subject black and Latino people to police searches.

With the help of Valley Metro security staff, Phoenix police officers are escalating minor fare infractions – things like not having a paid ticket to ride the light rail or being in a “paid fare zone” without proof of payment – to stop people, run warrant checks and arrest them, Living United for Change in Arizona said. 

“Valley Metro is calling the police on its riders,” said Alejandra Gomez, co-chair of LUCHA. “And it’s disproportionately affecting black and brown communities, trans communities, queer communities, disabled communities – and we are calling for an end to that.”

The morning of Nov. 13, Mitzi Castro, who works for LUCHA, was questioned by Valley Metro security staff and later detained and handcuffed by police. She was on the train, one stop away from the LUCHA offices on Montebello and 19th avenues. 

Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Tommy Thompson said that police contacted approximately 750 people on the light rail station on 19th Avenue and Camelback Road between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. that day. He said of those, 70 “had fare infractions of some sort” and 66 received citations, Castro among them. Another four opted to pay a train fare, Thompson said. 

“Two of those individuals cited had felony arrest warrants and six had misdemeanor arrest warrants,” he said. “In addition, one of the individuals cited had drugs in her possession.”

Stop-and-frisk refers to a policing practice of holding and searching a person without probable cause. These strategies are known to have a disproportionate impact on people of color. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently apologized for his defense of these policing tactics and acknowledged it often leads to the detention of black and Latino residents, ABC News reported

According to Valley Metro, approximately 30,000 people ride the light rail every day in Phoenix. 

The July arrest of Noami Ramirez Rosales, a transgender woman who landed in deportation proceedings after she was arrested following a fare violation, and cases like Castro’s led the group to denounce the security measures at public transit stations. 

Security activity at public transit stations is two-fold. Valley Metro, the regional transportation system that operates light rail, has private security staff that conducts fare inspections. They can issue traffic citations, but don’t have authority to arrest. Penalties for those civil violations, like lack of fare payment, range from $50 to $500.

Valley Metro employs 133 security personnel, though not all are working at one time, said spokeswoman Hillary Foose. 

Foose said Valley Metro security staff doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender identity or immigration status. 

“We have very strict protocols in the way we conduct fare sweeps. Everybody is asked for fare. We don’t pick and choose,” she said. 

In addition, Phoenix Police Department officers and assistants periodically conduct fare inspections at light rail platforms — operations also known as transit sweeps, Thompson said. 

The Phoenix Police Department has been doing fare inspections since 2015 or perhaps longer,” he said.The inspections are conducted periodically, usually at least once a month.  The inspections are primarily focused on areas identified through calls for service, crime analysis and complaints from the community where it is believed they will have the greatest impact.”  

Maria Castro, from the immigrant-rights group Puente Human Rights Movement, said police and Valley Metro staff are using flaws in the public transit system to criminalize people. She said it’s easy for people to buy an incorrect ticket or to not know how to validate a pass. Castro asked Valley Metro to correct its systems.

“It’s very easy to not know how to navigate the system,” she said. “This is like a net to catch people and put them in the system to criminalize them in different ways. And the people that are falling on this net are hardworking people who make our city run… Police does not belong in public transportation.”

‘You’re probably going to go to jail’

Gomez, from LUCHA, said the organization’s offices are across from a light rail stop and the group has seen an increase in police activity there. 

“After seeing the swarm of police officers – not just security guards – for a minor city code violation, it’s clear the intention was not to serve or protect, it was to intimidate and scare,” she said in a press release. What happened to Mitzi was another example of the over policing and the Phoenix Police Department culture of using excessive force.”

A body-worn camera video provided by police show the incident involving Castro. 

A police officer asks Castro for her ID, which is necessary to issue a citation. She asks why he needs it. He then asks for her date of birth. She refuses to share it. 

“Right now, you’re being detained,” he explains.

“I’m being detained?” she asks in disbelief.

“Yeah, because you don’t have the proper fare.”

She points to another officer. “The proper fare? He has it in his hand.”

The officer then continues with a threat.

“I need to know your date of birth or… you’re not going to get a ticket, you’re probably going to go to jail.” 

The officer again asks for a date of birth. Castro doesn’t answer and instead makes a call to her boss at LUCHA to ask for help. 

“I need help. A cop is saying I’m going to be put into handcuffs right now. I’m here on the light rail on Camelback,” she says. 

Two officers then grip her wrists. One takes her phone away, as she pleads with them. 

“There’s absolutely no need for this,” she says. 

Another police officer says, “Stand up and follow directions. You don’t need to get a felony.”

The officers place her wrists behind her back and handcuff her. 

Distressed, Castro agrees to share her date of birth.

Police released her after a Valley Metro security guard issued her a citation for failing to validate her transit pass. 

Days later, in a press conference outside Valley Metro’s offices in downtown Phoenix, Castro called the experience traumatic. 

“Their actions are wrong,” she said. “This is not OK. PD, please stop. Valley Metro, you need to reconsider your actions, you need to treat people with dignity.” 

Valley Metro: conduct policies ‘might need to evolve’

Community groups also said Respect the Ride, Valley Metro’s code of conduct, is being harshly enforced and opening the door to over-policing. 

Valley Metro’s Foose said having a valid fare is a basic part of riding public transit. She added that the Respect the Ride policy, implemented in 2017, might need to evolve. 

“We always welcome public input. Respect the Ride was community-driven, rider-driven,” she said. “We welcome conversation and are committed to having conversations. We take to heart that we are a public service and everybody is welcome.”

Foose added that the role of Valley Metro security officers is to inspect fares, educate riders and be the public transit system’s eyes and ears.

She spoke from the Valley Metro offices in downtown Phoenix on Nov. 15. Minutes earlier, leaders from LUCHA, Puente and Trans Queer Pueblo and supporters went the office’s front desk on the 14th floor. They requested to meet with Scott Smith, Valley Metro’s CEO. 

With them, they brought a two-seat stroller.

Gina Mendez, senior organizer with LUCHA, said a woman was arrested Oct. 9 on the light rail platform in front of the LUCHA’s offices. The woman had her four children with her, Mendez said. The woman’s sister took the children with her, but left the stroller with LUCHA. 

“We haven’t heard from them since,” Mendez said of the family. “(The stroller) symbolizes the criminalization of people. Light rail is supposed to help people out, and yet this is what we are seeing.”

stroller light rail offices
LUCHA leaders left a two-seat stroller at the front desk of Valley Metro’s downtown Phoenix office on Nov. 15, 2019. The stroller belongs to a mother of four who was arrested on the light rail platform during a police transit sweep in October, LUCHA alleges. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Gomez, addressing Valley Metro community relations staff that received the protesters on Nov. 15 with clipboards and comment cards in hand, explained why they were leaving the stroller with Valley Metro. 

“We feel this is actually Scott Smith’s responsibility, because he has not been accountable to the multiple arrests that have happened between the Valley Metro and police collusion,” Gomez said. 

Gallardo: Tempe, Mesa don’t do warrant checks. Why is Phoenix doing it?

The community groups also called on the Phoenix City Council and members of Valley Metro’s board of directors to end police’s enforcement sweeps on public transit systems. 

Steve Gallardo, a member of Valley Metro’s board of directors and an elected member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said public transit users shouldn’t be detained for a fare violation. 

“No one should be detained for not paying a fare. No one,” he said. “It’s unfortunate people have been detained for not paying an actual fare.” 

Gallardo said if security officers find that someone is riding the light rail without a paid fare, the appropriate way of handling those incidents is for the person to step off the train, purchase a ticket and then reboard the train. 

He also said issuing citations shouldn’t be the first recourse. 

“The only ones that are cited are repeat offenders,” Gallardo said. “That’s my understanding – but maybe that is something that Valley Metro needs to look at.” 

Valley Metro partners with local police departments in Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa. He said police should only be involved in situations involving serious crimes. 

But Phoenix police said Valley Metro security guards collaborate closely during fare sweeps. 

Thompson, the police spokesman, said Valley Metro security conduct fare inspections, and when someone doesn’t have proof of paid fare, they are referred to Phoenix cops on the scene. 

Police ask those detained to provide identification. A police officer then runs a background check on the person. If there are no outstanding warrants, Valley Metro then issues a civil citation.

Gallardo said he opposes those operations.

“Why are they doing warrant checks for simply not paying a fare? Does it raise to the level for having to check for identification? Why are we going that high up for simply not paying a fare?” he said. “It’s my understanding Mesa is not doing it, Tempe is not doing it – so why is Phoenix PD doing it?”

A Tempe Police Department spokeswoman confirmed officers don’t conduct criminal history check during transit enforcement on light rail platforms. 

“Tempe Police Officers enforce Transit Municipal codes such as fare violations and also support Light Rail Security Officers when violators refuse to identify themselves,” said Detective Natalie Barela in an email. “Tempe Police off duty officers who work the weekends at 3rd and Mill do request those on the platform to show proof of a ticket as they get pretty packed near bar close. That being said; that does not entail conducting a criminal history check or citing them. We will continue to respond to calls for service and address them accordingly.”