MTS officers carry out a special enforcement unit at the La Mesa trolley station. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

More than five years ago, at one of our Member Coffee events in southeastern San Diego, the owner of the barbershop where we were gathered was telling us about just how often people in the neighborhood who used the trolley to get to work or school were harassed and ticketed. The encounters, he told us, were relentless. They were unending.

And even though this was new information to many of us in the room, it was clear that to members of that community, this had been par for the course for a long time.

Not too long after that, Andrew Keatts published this investigation – one of my all-time favorites – revealing a Sheriff’s Department program that sought to target and arrest people who’d been released from prison for minor slip-ups like fare evasion on the trolley.

A young man caught up in one of the trolley sweeps Keatts chronicled wasn’t just ticketed for fare evasion, he was handcuffed too.

“I could look to my left and see everyone in cuffs was a black male and under 21,” he said. “I said, ‘You all are targeting someone out here.’ I have no kind of record.”

Fast-forward five years, and Lisa Halverstadt reported this week that MTS has ramped up its fare evasion monitoring so aggressively that it tickets more riders for that transgression than cities with three times the ridership. Compared to Denver, a city with the same fare system and similar ridership, MTS tickets almost 20 times more. Those numbers are stunning.

Even before our report came out, mayoral candidate Tasha Williamson was urging people to pay attention. At VOSD’s Politifest, she said:

“One of the things that we have issue with, whether you are homeless, whether you have money, whether you are middle class, it doesn’t really matter. People are being traumatized for $2.50 to $5. They are being traumatized every single day. And it is elected officials who sit on a board that represent each and every one of us and including all of the people who ride MTS transit. And the way that we are being treated is horrible.”

Combine these efforts with things like the shameful episode in which the DA’s office charged a group of men from southeastern San Diego in connection with a crime prosecutors admitted they played no role in. Combine these efforts with what we know about young, black men being wildly overrepresented in the state’s error-ridden gang database. Add it all up, and you get a level of police interactions in some of our neighbors’ everyday lives that would be simply unfathomable – and unacceptable – to most of us.

When I look back to that Member Coffee, I feel a bit of shame that I was so surprised to hear about the extent to which people who ride the trolley encountered police. Five years later, when we began examining the fare evasion numbers, I was not surprised.

No one should be. Activists and community members have been talking about this – urging leaders to change something – for years. We just weren’t listening hard enough.

What VOSD Learned This Week

Some of the San Diego Unified schools that appeared on last year’s list of the state’s worst-performing schools worked their way off, but many more performed badly enough to take their places.


North County mayors have been angry with SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata for months over his ideas to prioritize transit over highway expansions. Now Ikhrata is floating combining MTS with the North County Transit District, and they’re not thrilled with that either.


Six police agencies around San Diego County use drones, but most won’t provide video captured by them or the other kind of detailed information that would give the public a better understanding of how they’re using the technology.

Meanwhile, the San Diego Police Department confirmed that its longtime crime lab director is no longer employed there following VOSD’s reporting revealing the lab lowered its testing standards on certain rape kits in order to clear its backlog.


CalWORKs enrollment in San Diego has plummeted in the last 10 years, but county officials say that’s good news – it means wages are up and employment is down. Advocates aren’t so sure that explains everything.

And in other municipal government news, the airport’s rental car fee appears to be dunzo.


The Legislature is back in session, and old fights are dominating the new year. Meanwhile, on the podcast we discussed how Measure A has suddenly become the most interesting fight on the local March primary ballot. Speaking of the primary, Dems are hoping the intense D3 race for the County Board of Supervisors doesn’t tear their party apart too much.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“Soon after the tingling feeling started in her forehead, Sarah, the 26-year-old from Louisville, realized that she and her roommate had made a miscalculation. The humanlike cats (catlike humans?) were grotesque. Sarah couldn’t stop staring at their feet. Er, paws. No, hands. ‘Where their fur ends and their human hands start, it would move in a weird unnatural way,’” she says.” – The Washington Post is doing truly stunning work here by chronicling the experiences of people who went to see “Cats” while high out of their minds.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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