Officials from BART, the public metro system serving California's San Francisco Bay area, have come under fire for their refusal to release crime surveillance videos, claiming such tapes will promote stereotypes and "stir up racial animosity."
A BART official defended the agency's decision on Monday by saying information about criminal misconduct will be withheld at this time because of the media's "disproportionate elevation" of crimes that "unfairly affect and characterize riders of color," the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
The decision, however, has been roundly criticized by at last two BART board members who are calling for greater transparency on how crimes are reported within the system.
Since the cameras were installed in April, a string of cell phone robberies have been reported on board the metro, according to local news outlets.
On April 22, 40 to 60 youths boarded a train at the Coliseum stop and robbed seven passengers, assaulting two, according to local station KCBS-TV. On June 28, a group of four teens assaulted a passenger and made off with another cell phone.
Until early June, the agency was issuing daily reports on police calls at BART, providing a narrative description of the report and the department’s response to anyone who signed up to receive those emails, The Mercury News reported. But that procedure changed when BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas assumed control of the department in late May, according to the newspaper.
The agency then began using a free online tool – called CrimeMapping.com – which offers real-time information about calls coming to the department, a BART spokesman told the newspaper. That tool allows users to view reports of crime, but does not offer many details about what happened during any particular incident, or provide an alert for riders using the trains at the time, according to the paper.
But BART board director Deborah Allen is pressing the agency to release more about the crimes to the public -- including videos of the recent robberies, telling The Mercury News: "People need to be aware of what’s happening on the trains."
In an email to BART’s board last week, Kerry Hamill, the assistant general manager of external affairs, warned that releasing such footage would increase racial tensions and present the agency as racially biased, reported the paper, which obtained a copy of the email.
For instance, Hamill said the social media reaction to the April robbery at the Coliseum was "startling in the level of racial profiling it prompted."
"The general manager got a call about the incident on her voicemail that used racist and incendiary language that made my mouth drop,” Hamill wrote, according to the paper. “Many posts used patently offensive language that often involved racial slurs (no news articles ever referenced the race of the offenders yet some members of the public leapt [sic] to their own conclusions)."
But both Allen and BART Director Joel Keller, who heads the board’s Operations, Safety and Workforce Committee, do not agree with BART's reasoning for withholding important public safety information.
In an email to Hamill, Allen wrote: "I don’t understand what role the color of one’s skin plays in this issue [of whether to divulge information]. Can you explain?'" KCBS-TV reported.
Allen told the station: "This is BART, people are sort of trapped in this train for awhile and they have a right to see what could potentially happen."