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TriMet: Transit patrols work

Crime stats on MAX show steady drop
by: Jim Clark Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputy Jennifer Ciobanasiu, a member of the East Precinct transit police, checks passengers' fares on Thursday, Jan. 26, at the Gateway MAX station.

Despite a recent rash of high-profile assaults involving MAX riders, bus drivers and passengers, crime reported on TriMet's MAX lines is down dramatically - even with a growing transit system - according to statistics provided by the region's mass transit agency.

Back in 2005, 780 crimes were reported along the MAX system, dropping to a low of 413 crime reports in 2009. And that's the same year the system grew with the additions of WES commuter rail and the Green Line, bringing the number of MAX and rail stations from 64 to 89, said Mary Fetsch, TriMet spokeswoman.

Crime reports did increase to 471 the next year in 2010. But that 14 percent increase is much lower than the 39 percent increase in the number of MAX and rail stations added to the system.

Residents along the MAX Blue Line, which runs from Hillsboro through Gresham, have historically blamed local crime on the light-rail line. They say the trains give criminals a quick means of escape and an easy way to swoop into other cities, commit crimes and make a clean get-away.

Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis was so outraged with crime on the trains and platforms that in 2007 he ordered local police officers to patrol trains moving through the city.

Within days, a 15-year-old gang member armed with a baseball bat savagely beat a 71-year-old Sandy man at a Gresham MAX station. The man survived but sustained permanent head injuries.

In response, TriMet created two precincts with transit officers dedicated to patrolling the rails - one for the west end of the Blue Line and one for the east end, from Gateway to Cleveland Avenue.

Although TriMet police already patrolled the MAX line, those officers were based out of downtown Portland, creating an impression in outlying cities that their presence was not a crime deterrent.

But even with the advent of the West and East precincts in 2008, the number of crimes reported on the MAX kept dropping: from 780 in 2005, to 727 in 2006, 619 in 2007, 507 in 2008 and 413 in 2009.

Higher police presence

And yet, people still think of MAX as high crime, particularly the eastern end of the Blue Line now patrolled by the East Precinct based out of Gresham City Hall.

Crimes on this 12-station stretch of the Blue Line, between the Gateway Transit Center and the Cleveland Avenue station at the end of the line in Gresham, made up about 40 percent of crime systemwide in 2005, 2007 and 2008 - when that stretch made up about 20 percent of the line.

But in 2006, the percentage of crimes on that part of the Blue Line was closer to 26 percent and came in even lower at 24 percent in 2009.

Since then, the percentage increased to 37 percent in 2010 and was about the same for the first half of last year.

Lt. Tony Silva, a Gresham police officer who serves as an East Precinct transit officer, said some of the increase can be attributed to the fact that the Gateway Transit Center is a hub where the Blue, Red and Green lines meet. So crime stats out of that station tend to be higher than others.

But the growing number of transit officers available to take more reports also could account for higher numbers of crime reports in recent years. TriMet transit police now total 62, up from 28 officers three years ago, he said.

'It's a better model,' Silva said of the precincts, which now include a South Precinct that patrols the Green Line going to Clackamas Town Center.

Officers are dedicated to a certain stretch of the MAX line but can patrol systemwide. They aim to spend 70 percent of their time on trains, buses, MAX platforms and bus stations.

They are not fare inspectors but do check fares. It's part of their focus on addressing the spectrum of behavior that makes riders uncomfortable, Silva said.

Silva thinks having more police on the trains, teamed with more cameras at stations - there are now more than 600 cameras at about 85 percent of TriMet's MAX stations - has played a role in reducing crime on the MAX system.

But really, he attributes the decline to greater police presence. When he became part of TriMet's transit unit, misbehaving MAX riders would tell him, 'You're not a real cop, you're just transit.' They were used to fare inspectors with no law enforcement authority, he explained.

'We've educated them, though,' Silva said.

A skeptical public

But local residents still seem to think crime is a problem on the MAX system - even when they think it's gotten better.

Gresham resident Lonzo Turnbull, who is waiting for a bus at the same transit center where the 71-year-old man was nearly beaten to death in 2007, said he thought the East Precinct officers made MAX feel safer.

'Actually, I do,' he said.

But his grandson, Daniel Turnbull, 28, also of Gresham, strongly disagrees. 'There are still people who don't buy tickets,' he said. 'There are still people who buy drugs. There are still people who fight on the train.'

Even the railing erected at the Gresham Transit Center to keep fare evaders off the MAX platform is a joke, he said. 'Anyway you look at it, it's been three years and it's the same - only more expensive,' Daniel said, referring to a recent report that TriMet is considering increasing fares to $5 for one round trip.

The grandfather listens carefully, then changes his mind.

'Put me down for no.'

So why do people still feel like MAX is crime infested?

'I think people are just becoming more aware,' said Jennifer Ciobanasiu, a Multnomah County sheriff's deputy and a new member of the East Precinct.

Having the ability to film incidents with a cell phone and post such videos online may also be a factor. And there's always the news media spotlighting such incidents, she added.

Even with the crime stats dropping, people find assaults on the light rail particularly alarming. Silva said it's because someone being assaulted on a train or a bus 'has no avenue of escape' - especially if it's moving.

With that in mind, he's helping to spearhead an effort to make assault on MAX trains or buses a felony instead of a misdemeanor as it is now. It is already a felony to assault a bus driver or train operator.