Tickets spike more than 800% in Edmonton's fare evasion crackdown
Critics worry the strategy is hurting vulnerable Edmontonians who can't afford fines
Edmonton's transit peace officers have issued far more tickets and warnings to people who didn't pay in the first part of the year compared to the past four years — a strategy aimed at making the system safer but that critics say targets homeless and vulnerable people.
Transit peace officers gave out 157 tickets for fare evasion between January and March this year compared to 17 in the same three months of 2019 — an 824 per cent increase.
The number of warnings skyrocketed to 2,798 in the first three months of 2023 from 92 in the same period of 2019.
The spike in $150 tickets — mostly on the LRT — was an intentional effort to improve safety on transit following a surge in disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Steve Bradshaw, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 569.
Bradshaw said the union and the city have been discussing ways to mitigate disorder on the system since last fall.
"The city came to us and said, 'You know we're going to ask those TPOs [transit peace officers] to ramp up their issuance of fare evasion tickets,'" Bradshaw told CBC News.
David Jones, branch manager of community standards and neighbourhoods, said peace officers try to educate riders on the need to pay a fare before giving out tickets. Tickets are issued "as a last resort," he said.
Jones noted that there's "no established link" between people who don't pay and disorder on buses and trains. Tickets, he said, are to "influence future behaviour."
Last May, the city promised to hire 22 more transit police officers. As of last week, the hiring process was ongoing, the city said.
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People in Edmonton who may have no fixed address are caught up in the tickets crackdown. That includes homeless people, couch surfers, people who can't or won't provide their address, or people with no personal information to substantiate an address, the city said.
This group got nearly 60 per cent of the fare evasion tickets and 65 per cent of the warnings handed out in January, February and March this year.
Chaz Fern is homeless and told CBC News that he got his most recent unpaid fare ticket a couple of months ago on the LRT platform at Churchill Square.
"They said, 'Did you pay for one today?' And I said 'no,'" Fern said.
Fern said he can't afford to pay the ticket and expects to do "a couple days in jail."
The idea that homeless people are being fined for fare evasion is a big concern to Ashley Salvador, councillor for Ward Métis.
"It's absolutely concerning, I think this is a larger conversation about what is the intended outcome of ticketing when it comes to fare evasion," Salvador said. "Who is being ticketed and is that actually resulting in the outcomes we want to see?"
Salvador intends to question city administration in mid-May when council gets a monthly update on the city's transit safety plan, which was released last spring as part of the formal plan to improve safety in core neighbourhoods.
"I do not recall a conversation where we were informed that there would be a sort of policing approach with the way that we are handing out tickets on transit," Salvador said.
Others are also critical of the city's approach to ticketing for fare evasion.
Erick Ambtman, executive director of End Poverty Edmonton, said people who don't pay a ticket rarely show up to their court date to challenge it. The next time a police officer interacts with them, their name will show an outstanding warrant, which can result in an arrest.
"It ties up that officer's time. It ties up the justice system's time," said Ambtman, who is also chair of the Edmonton Police Commission. "I don't think it's the sort of approach that's going to address any issue that we're trying to fix in our community."
Most homeless people aren't creating disorder — they're just getting on and off transit, he said.
Bradshaw said the union and the city agreed to target known gang members — many of whom they've dealt with multiple times — to directly tackle disorder and make the system safer,
"They know on a personal basis, person by person, where the troublemakers " Bradshaw said. "They sort of do this continual dance of getting taken off the system and drifting back in."
Trenton Collins, who said he's part of a gang, is one of those repeat offenders. He's homeless and has been banned from Edmonton's trains and buses.
Collins said he hasn't paid a fine he got a few months ago for not having proof of payment. Last week, he got a $600 ticket for being on the train again, he said.
He can't afford to pay that fine so expects he'll "just go to jail for probably six months."
Bradshaw said there are systemic problems of mental health, addictions and homelessness that need attention. But transit riders also expect a safer experience.
"Everybody wants to do something to mitigate the problem of disorder on the system that makes it very difficult for people to ride, for people to work there."
EPS creates 2 teams of officers to patrol LRT
Meanwhile, in an effort to address an increase in violent crime, the Edmonton Police Service said Monday that 18 officers are being redeployed to work in the LRT system.
The officers will make up two dedicated transit teams, EPS said in a news release.
The teams will supplement work being done by City of Edmonton community and transit peace officers patrolling downtown, Chinatown and core neighbourhoods to "provide a co-ordinated response to safety in transit corridors," police said.
"We recognize that violence on transit has escalated and requires a consistent EPS presence, and our previous staffing approach of using overtime shifts alone is not economical or sustainable," Chief Dale McFee said in a statement.
"We believe a fulsome strategy to increase public safety in our city's LRT corridor must include having the right authorities in place to respond at the right time."