Nationwide, transit agencies are struggling to stay relevant. They want more people to get out of their cars and onto a rail car or a bus. Washington, D.C. officials seem to have an unusual strategy to boost ridership. They call it offering a quite, pleasant ride, but some civil liberties advocates call it going too far. A transit cop recently had a run-in with a pregnant woman who was, according to him, speaking too loudly on her cell phone: [The transit officer] grabbed [Sakinah] Aaron by the arm and pushed her to the ground. He handcuffed the 23-year-old woman, called for backup and took her to a cell where she was held for three hours before being released to her aunt. She was charged with two misdemeanors: “disorderly manner that disturbed the public peace” and resisting arrest. Transit Police defend the officer. They say he was protecting the peace and claim the woman had gone overboard by cursing loudly into her phone (a charge she denies): But Aaron and some defenders of free speech say the Transit Police are the ones who overstepped boundaries by making a crime out of conversation and pushing a pregnant woman to her knees. The incident took place out of doors and not in the confines of a rail car or bus, they note. And they point to a string of other incidents, including the July arrest of a 45-year-old woman for chewing a PayDay candy bar and the 2000 arrest of a 12-year-old girl for eating a french fry, that are earning the Transit Police a national reputation as an agency itching to lock up riders. Transit users know the biggest problems don’t involve cell phones, candy bars or french fries, but fights, threats from crazy people, and patrons who (ahem) choose unconventional ways of relieving themselves.
Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.