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MARTA pushing new “Ride with Respect” campaign for rider behavior

No smoking, no panhandling, no drinking or eating and, generally, no knucklehead behavior.

That’s the message MARTA is sending to unruly passengers with a new code of conduct that will be implemented in October, if all goes as planned. The new “Ride with Respect” campaign is aimed at improving MARTA’s overall image and creating a more positive experience.

Anyone caught engaging in any of the aforementioned activities (or possessing a weapon, soliciting, evading the fare or littering) could face a suspension from using the transit system from a few days up to a year.

While questions remain about enforcement, the “Ride with Respect” campaign is meant to address the kinds of non-criminal shenanigans that scare away customers and discourage ridership, said MARTA General Manager Keith Parker.

“People need to feel safe when they ride MARTA or they won’t ride MARTA,” Parker said.

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In reality, there have been relatively few serious crimes like assaults or robberies reported on the buses and trains, but “what makes people uncomfortable is the horseplay,” Parker said.

Briefing state lawmakers on the policy at a recent legislative oversight committee meeting, Parker cited an occasion when he was on a train and a passenger opened a beer. Others on the train immediately became uncomfortable, he said.

The offender spotted a MARTA officer at the station and exited the train of his own accord, but not before marring the transit system’s reputation for those other passengers, Parker said.

Since being hired in December 2012, Parker has been moving aggressively to overhaul MARTA’s image and repair a fractured relationship with the General Assembly. He told the MARTA oversight committee Thursday that the code of conduct is only one component of plans to improve MARTA security system-wide.

Officers are making themselves more visible throughout the system by wearing neon yellow vests.

High-resolution cameras with audio recording capability are being installed on all of its 531 buses, 187 mobility vans and 318 rail cars. There is also a new smartphone “See & Say” app that allows customers to discreetly report misbehavior and upload photos of suspicious activity.

Committee members applauded Parker and the new efforts. However, a few expressed reservations about suspending passengers for minor offenses such as eating and said they were concerned about the potential for someone to be falsely accused or racially profiled.

Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, called the plan “ambitious,” but fretted over passengers’ response and potential lack of due process.

“I hope it works, but I think you are subjecting yourself to a whole lot of backlash,” Mitchell said.

MARTA Police Chief Wanda Y. Dunham said officers have been trained to avoid racial profiling and the department’s arrest records have passed scrutiny by a national law enforcement accrediting agency. Records of suspensions would be retained and made available to the oversight committee after six months if members wanted to evaluate the fairness of the enforcement effort, Dunham said.

Addressing the due process concern, Dunham said suspension notices will include information about how to file an appeal.

Dunham acknowledged that there is no mechanism to identify suspended passengers and block them from buying a Breeze card or boarding a train or bus. So riders could get away with violating the suspension, but only if they refrain from further misbehavior and manage to stay off officers’ radar.

Since the focus of the code of conduct is to eradicate mischievous behavior, MARTA officials don’t view that enforcement issue as a problem, Dunham said. Anyone caught violating a suspension is subject to an additional 30-day suspension.

The MARTA board was briefed on the proposed policy in July. The board will vote on it at their next meeting Sept. 9. If approved, the code of conduct will take effect in October.

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