When D.C. civil rights attorney Yaida Ford saw how a Metro officer beat up her client, Diamond Rust, she knew that justice consisted of a successful civil lawsuit against the transit system.
However, as she conducted her research, she was surprised to learn that the agency cannot be sued civilly because the police officer who severely injured Rust performed his duties and receives protection from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Compact, Metro’s governing document.
Ford deems that section dealing with employee protection in the WMATA Compact unacceptable and has vowed to change it.
“I have started a petition on change.org to urge Washington-area leaders to amend the WMATA Compact so that victims of police brutality have a legal mechanism for relief,” Ford said. “Without it, WMATA cannot be held accountable and lawlessness will increase.”
In February 2018, a Metro police officer slammed Rust to the ground on Alabama Avenue SE in front of her two small children, charging her with fare evasion and resisting arrest. Her injuries included a busted face, several broken teeth and a fractured knee.
When the incident became known to the public, some District leaders expressed outrage.
“The graphic images of Ms. Rust’s face as a result of a Metro Transit Police Department officer’s use of force are heartbreaking,” said D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At Large). “That she sustained these injuries in front of her young children over unpaid bus fare is inexcusable. No entry should be able to escape liability for unjustified aggression and injury. Especially given the continued nationwide failures of the criminal justice system to hold law enforcement accountable for serious injuries and deaths of people of color, civil penalties serve a necessary and protective role.”
The mistreatment of Rust led the D.C. Council on Jan. 22, 2019 to enact “The Fare Evasion Decriminalization Act” which calls for fines, not arrests, of fare evaders.
Ford said Metro claims losses of $25 million to 30 million as a result of fare evasion.
“However, the data shows that between January 1, 2016 and February 5, 2018, just over 2,000 people were arrested for fare evasion,” she said. “Ninety-one percent of these people were Black and 46 percent of these people were under the age of 25. If you look at those 2,000 arrests, which do not amount to the massive losses in revenue Metro claims is the result of fare evasion.
“Metro needs to not only evaluate at why its officers are selectively enforcing fare evasion laws against Black D.C.-area residents, but what other methods it can use to effectively deter fare evasion,” Ford said.
The D.C. Office of the Attorney General declined to comment on specific cases. A Metro spokesperson said the agency is “unable to offer legal interpretation of the Compact relative to a matter of personal litigation.”
Ford, a graduate of the Howard University School of Law, said she hasn’t filed a lawsuit at this point.
“We want the WMATA Compact to be amended to carve out an exception so that residents have the option of bringing suit against [Metro] for violations of their federally protected civil rights,” she said.
Ford said she is looking to partner with other organizations.
“I started the petition because I cannot wage this fight alone,” she said. “I need the help of all DMV-area residents who are willing to take action and say enough is enough. [Metro] should not continue to receive the benefit of sovereign immunity in cases where its officers are savagely beating young Black people over bus fare.
“Justice is at stake all over America,” Ford said. “We need to act now.”