Police cited 55 people for eating on San Francisco trains. Only nine were white

Sam Levin
Photograph: Ben Margot/AP

Police officers for the San Francisco Bay Area commuter train system disproportionately target black riders with citations for eating and drinking, according to new data that has renewed concerns about racial profiling.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart) data was released following a viral video showing police handcuffing a 31-year-old black man who was cited for eating a breakfast sandwich on his way to work. The new records show that more than 81% of people who have been stopped for eating and drinking on Bart since 2014 were people of color, and that the vast majority of them were black.

Stops for eating and drinking on trains or platforms are infrequent within Bart, the train system that runs between San Francisco, Oakland and surrounding suburbs. Of 55 people cited for this offense over the last five years, 33 were black passengers, representing 60% of the citations. Nine of the stops were white passengers, seven were listed as Hispanic, five were categorized as “other” and one was unknown, according to the data, which was obtained by the San Francisco Examiner.

Only 10% of Bart’s total riders are black, meaning they are six times more likely than others to be stopped for eating and drinking. Ridership data, collected last year, showed that 35% of overall riders are white, 32% are Asian/Pacific Islander and 17% are Latino.

Related: San Francisco transit boss apologizes to rider detained over a sandwich

The Bart spokeswoman Alicia Trost said in an email that the data shows citations are “very rare” and are “handed out at stations across the system”. “When an officer witnesses someone eating, they remind the rider that eating is not allowed and if the rider puts the food away no citation is necessary. It is a rare occurrence to need to issue a citation after reminding the rider not to eat,” she said.

John Burris, a civil rights lawyer representing Steve Foster, the man stopped in the recent video, said Tuesday that the data was not surprising and was evidence of racial profiling. “This is a form of biased policing, and it’s very harmful to African Americans. Other people eat sandwiches all the time, and they don’t get stopped.”

The 15-minute video that received national attention showed a white Bart police officer stopping Foster at the station in Pleasant Hill, a city north-east of Oakland. The footage showed the officer holding on to Foster’s backpack and telling him he was not free to go until he identified himself and that he was resisting arrest. Backup officers arrived, and Foster was handcuffed and taken away in front of morning commuters.

The citation he ultimately received required him to pay a $250 fine or do 48 hours of community service.

“It was so insulting to him and disturbing,” said Burris. “He was humiliated in front of all the people on Bart.”

The video sparked protests and widespread criticism, and Bart leaders eventually apologized and promised to investigate. Bob Powers, Bart’s general manager, said at the time he was “disappointed how the situation unfolded”.

A citation or arrest for a minor infraction like eating can escalate to a significantly more serious conflict, said Cat Brooks, the co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project in Oakland.

“Eating a sandwich is certainly not a reason to throw yet another black body into the criminal justice system,” she said. “We have to hold these cops accountable for racial profiling.”

Bart police have long faced scrutiny for brutality and racial profiling, in particular following the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old shot dead on the Fruitvale station platform. There have since been a number of other killings and ongoing allegations of abuse by Bart police.

Bart should not be citing anyone for eating in the first place, Brooks said.

Burris said there should be better training to prevent biased policing, and that it was wrong to handcuff riders for eating.

Trost, the Bart spokeswoman, said all officers receive training in “fair and impartial policing, bias-based policing … and de-escalation”.

The Bart controversy comes as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in New York City is facing intense backlash over a number of viral videos of police, including the arrest of a food vendor selling churros, and an incident in which officers pulled guns on a teenager accused of fare evasion.