Transit system hiding suspect details in passenger attacks over “racial bias” fears

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After multiple attacks against passengers aboard the The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco and Oakland, a local CBS news station has learned that BART is withholding video evidence taken during the crimes because they’re concerned that the videos may perpetuate negative racial perceptions.

According to reports, Debora Allen, a member of the BART Board of Directors, said the organization thought the videos “would create a high level of racially insensitive commentary toward the district,” and would additionally “create a racial bias in the riders against minorities on the trains.”

Reportedly, the teenagers involved in three incidents were racial minorities. The incidents include an April 22 attack by forty to sixty kids who boarded a train and robbed seven passengers, assaulting two; a June 28 assault on a passenger by a group of four kids; and a June 30 attack on a woman by about a dozen teenagers. BART has not turned over the surveillance video taken during any of these incidents.

Although it’s common for BART to issue a press release after crimes occur aboard one of its trains or at its transit stations, an internal memo acquired by CBS SF Bay Area states that BART would not be releasing information on the June 30 theft because all the teens took was a cell-phone, making it a “petty crime.” Fears that such incidents  would make the transit system appear “crime ridden” to the public and “unfairly affect and characterize riders of color, leading to sweeping generalizations in media reports” prevented the organization from releasing the information to the public.

Allen said she asked the memo’s author, BART Assistant General Manager Kerry Hamill, what role skin color had in BART’s decision to withhold the videos. Hamill indicated that the fact that the suspects were minorities was a major factor, reportedly saying “we would certainly face questions as to why we were sensationalizing relatively minor crimes and perpetuating false stereotypes in the process.”

In a video interview, Allen was asked whether the surveillance footage would have been released if it showed that the suspects were white. Allen said she hadn’t asked that question, but said it was a “good question” to ask. According to Allen, passengers should be fully aware of the dangers of riding the BART, regardless of racial sensitivity. She also suggests that any fears passengers did have were reasonable.

Allen says that people are “trapped on BART trains when they’re riding, and that they should know what kinds of crimes might happen. She asks, “What is the priority of BART? Is the safety of the passenger — of all passengers — is that a lesser priority than the race bias issue?”

Although BART spokesman Taylor Huckaby said a state law protecting “juvenile police records” is what prevents them from releasing surveillance video, some have accused BART of using that as an excuse, especially after the contents of the memo have been revealed.

You can watch Allen’s interview here.

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