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Efforts to stop smoking on the CTA highlights challenges – and limits – to policing Chicago's public transit

Efforts to stop smoking on the CTA highlights challenges to policing public transit
Efforts to stop smoking on the CTA highlights challenges to policing public transit 05:17

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Chicago Transit Authority is fuming – and the customers are also mad. 

CTA riders have slowly started to return three years after the start of the pandemic. But the return to office has been marred by commutes, often filled with cigarette and weed smoke. 

Riders have voiced complaints loud enough that the quality of CTA service and safety on trains and buses became top campaign issues.

While lockdowns have long lifted, a return to normal has bedeviled transit officials, who've had to deal with persistent crime and open drug and alcohol use – sometimes during rush hours. Politicians and residents have called on the CTA and police department to do something to improve conditions, and so far enforcement has fallen to paper-pushing.

Chicago police have tried to rein in smokers on the CTA with municipal citations, issuing about 3,900 citations last year, and roughly 4,400 in 2021, according to an analysis of police citation data.

But the effectiveness of this policy is questionable.  CBS 2 obtained payment data from 2021 from the Chicago Department of Finance and hearings data from the Department of Administrative Hearings through public records requests.

Out of the roughly 4,400 citations issued in 2021, about 200 were paid – or 5%.

"People are living on the trains. There's a lot of drug use occurring," said CTA commuter Ryan Harris. "People are smoking crack. They're shooting heroin. There's a lot of smoking going on. Public drinking. Using the bathroom."

Social etiquettes have taken a backseat for some of the 5.9 million weekly commuters estimated to be using the CTA, according to data from the Transit App. That's down from the 8.8 million weekly commuters before the pandemic, but still higher than the 2-million low when stay-at-home orders began in March of 2020.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (D-1st) and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas have said they would improve the quality of CTA service if elected mayor. But while Johnson has said he would focus on improving service reliability, Vallas has said he would divert funds to increase police presence on the CTA.

It's unclear whether that would be effective, as the Chicago Police Department has already stepped up patrols as best it can with strained resources.

Administrative notice of violations (ANOVs) account for a wide array of city ordinances that are meant to deal with quality of life issues such as drinking or urinating in public. 

These violations generally aren't considered a felony, and some are barely misdemeanors. The violations are meant to deter minor infractions with penalties that range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. 

Under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration, Chicago saw these types of fines increase to thousands of dollars in 2012, and combined with an aggressive policing strategy under then-Supt. Garry McCarthy, ANOVs ballooned to more than 180,000 citations in 2014. 

Many of those citations were issued in majority Black neighborhoods. These same neighborhoods saw disproportionate amounts of parking tickets and impounds, which saddled mostly Black residents with crippling debt, according to investigations from ProPublica and WBEZ.

The number of citations has since fallen, and last year there were about 19,600 ANOVs issued, according to data from the Police Department. Because enforcement of other violations fell, smoking on the CTA rose to the most ticketed offense in the city with nearly 3,900 citations in 2022. Drinking on a public way had only 1,300 citations issued citywide last year, down from almost 39,000 in 2014.

When asked about the effectiveness of the citations, the Chicago Police Department would not elaborate on specific procedures.

In an emailed statement, the Police Department said its Public Transportation Section enforces all laws and ordinances on the Chicago Transit Authority system, including smoking violations.

"We will continue to work closely with the CTA to deter crime and enhance safety across the transit system," according to the statement.

CBS 2 analyzed payment data from 2011 to 2021, and found that while the number of smoking citations goes up and down, the rate of the non-payment has always remained high. About 20% of these tickets get dropped on average. 

In 2011, there were about 3,300 CTA smoking tickets issued. About 3,000 of them were liable, and more than 2,300 or 77% went unpaid. The amount of liable, unpaid smoking tickets was closer to 94% in 2021.

What's more, there's a very likely chance that police are ticketing homeless people. Some of the administrative hearings dockets for smoking violations also contained violations for taking up multiple seats, moving between train cars and trespassing on CTA property.

The high likelihood of non-payment from persons who are housing displaced would seem obvious, but the application ties up city employees in bureaucratic processes that go nowhere and the ticket issuance itself could be considered callous.

When the CTA was asked about the effectiveness of the ticketing policy, the agency said it's committed to providing customers a safe, reliable, and comfortable transit riding experience. 

"If someone violating the no smoking policy does not comply with CTA personnel/unarmed guards in extinguishing their smoking device when asked, police assistance will be requested, the agency said in an emailed statement. 

"Any other details regarding the enforcement of CTA's Rules of Conduct and/or issuance of citations will need to be addressed by CPD, who is the provider of law enforcement for CTA. 

Municipal citations are thought to be more lenient than an arrest, and less time-intensive for officers who would have to cease patrol to book a violator.

Even so, Chicago Police have arrested individuals for municipal code violations of smoking on the CTA, but they were almost always in connection with another offense such as weapons violations, public drinking or narcotics possession. Last year there were 78 such arrests, according to police data.  

One city official, who has been a vocal critic of CTA, has a more direct suggestion for law enforcement.

"They don't get to use the train then. Remove them from the station. That has to happen," said Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd). "Handing someone a piece of paper is just handing them a piece of paper. There are zero consequences." 

Last November, members of Chicago's City Council grilled CTA President Dorval Carter about the cleanliness of the transit system, delays in service and violent crime. 

"It's important to me that each of you know you have my full commitment to continue to update you and our riders on the progress we make on our action plan," Carter said.

Reilly asked Carter whether the CTA has changed its policy on people smoking cigarettes or cannabis on trains – which is a common complaint. Carter said no – such behavior is still not allowed. But had no plan to address the behavior either.

Meanwhile, Vallas has seized the campaign opportunity to sell his plan of reallocating millions for CTA security to hire additional transit cops.

The history of the Chicago Police Transit Security Unit starts in September of 1981, when then-Mayor Jane Byrne disbanded the CTA's own security force. She alleged guards were pilfering money, selling transfers, and allowing drug abuse on the city's trains and buses, according to Chicago Tribune archives.

While officials and unions have previously called for the restoration of that unit, it was not controlled by the Police Department, and had only 107 guards at the time of its disbandment. 

Patrol of the city's buses and trains would fall to the police.

The Police Department's combined Transportation Security Unit (704) and Public Transportation Unit (701) would see their ranks fall from a peak of 237 officers in April of 2020 to 175 officers this month, according to staffing data from Chicago's Office of Inspector General. That figure is still higher than the original force in the CTA had in the '80s.

Whether Vallas or Johnson wins, either candidate will have to grapple with the city's homeless issue as residents have struggled with lack of affordable housing. 

CBS 2 reached out to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Night Ministry, a nonprofit that helps those experiencing homelessness. Neither would weigh in on the prospect of police ticketing homeless people.

Last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot directed city employees to eject homeless people living at O'Hare International Airport. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has faced fierce criticism for his plan to push homeless people off the city's train, as well as a plan to involuntarily hospitalize homeless persons with mental illnesses.

Reilly remains steadfast that resources should move more aggressively.

"If you're getting on the Blue Line at O'Hare and this is your very first experience with Chicago as a tourist," he said.  "Getting on a train where people are doing all sorts of illegal activities, drugs, smoking, drinking, urinating, you name it…. What kind of message does that send to our visitors? 

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