In 2017, Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Emanuella Groves ruled that the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's (RTA's) proof of payment fare enforcement method was unconstitutional. Fares were at that time enforced on the Health Line and Red Line rapid transit trains by armed RTA cops.
"The court rejects RTA's policy of utilizing its law enforcement officers to perform fare enforcement functions requiring officers to stop passengers without reasonable articulable suspicion," the Groves opinion read. This was a violation of passengers' Fourth Amendment rights.
Groves noted in her decision, however, that if RTA were to use unarmed civilians to enforce fares instead of police officers "decorated in the color of law," the constitutional breach would no longer exist.
RTA has nevertheless failed to implement a civilian fare ambassador program. Since late 2017, the Health Line has reverted to a system in which passengers purchase fare cards or show their mobile tickets to drivers at the front of the bus, resulting in significant delays and bunching on Euclid Avenue. The Health Line's "all door boarding" system had been a major contributor to its operational efficiency.
But according to a presentation by RTA's new police chief Dierdre Jones
at Tuesday's board committee meeting, a six-month pilot program will employ unarmed ambassadors to inspect fares and assist passengers with navigating the transit system in 2022. Ambassadors will be full-time employees working first and second shifts, seven days a week, and will be a regular presence on buses, trains and at transit stops. They are meant to deter fare evasion and to provide eyes throughout the transit system to assist with customer service needs and to relay information to RTA police as necessary.
Additionally, RTA will employ community outreach / crisis intervention specialists. These are designed to be trained social workers who can perform mental health, homelessness, crisis and substance abuse outreach and defuse crises while also directing passengers in need to resources. Unlike the transit ambassadors, who will be paid from the RTA police budget, the community outreach specialists will be paid from grant funding, though those grants have not yet been secured.
The pilot program was met with excitement by the grassroots transit advocacy organization Clevelanders for Public Transit. They have been calling for a transit ambassador program ever since the Groves decision. It was one of their marquee policy recommendations in the 2018 "fair fares" report
and appeared again in their 2021 report calling on the next Cleveland mayor to "end the transit death spiral."
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