Is TriMet safe to ride?
That question has been asked repeatedly for years, including in 2007 when Guardian Angels began riding MAX trains after an assault at a station in Gresham. But the question has never been asked with the urgency following the May 26 attack on a MAX train that left two good Samaritans dead and another seriously injured.
The fact that the victims were defending two teenage girls, including a Muslim, from a known extremist yelling racist threats amplified the horror, shocking the region served by TriMet and generating national news coverage.
The attacker, Jeremy Christian, was involved in two other incidents on MAX trains the previous day. Police were notified in both cases, but, in the first incident, he disappeared before they arrived at the next stop. It is unclear what happened in the second incident because police and TriMet won't release their reports because of the ongoing investigation.
TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane insists his agency's trains and buses are safe to ride, and statistics back him up. Crimes against passengers are relatively low — given the number of people who ride TriMet every day — and have been falling for years, although assaults on drivers have recently ticked up.
Despite that, following the attack at the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, McFarlane beefed up the security on MAX trains by increasing the presence of the agency's 61 Transit Police officers, 75 supervisors and 15 private security officers. Additional private security officers were also added under the terms of the existing contract, and TriMet has accelerated the hiring of 15 more transit and community safety officers authorized in the new budget that takes effect on July 1.
The increased presence is especially apparent on the MAX line between the Rose Quarter and Gateway transit centers, where the attack took place. The increase will remain through the end of the Rose Festival, after which TriMet will evaluate whether it needs to continue.
"TriMet is safe, but we want our customers to perceive it as safe," McFarlane says.
Asked if the political polarization in the country could require more security to prevent incidents like the MAX attack, McFarlane says, "I hope to heaven the answer is no."
The increased security was not enough to prevent a disruptive passenger from assaulting a MAX driver last Friday afternoon, however. The driver was not seriously injured and the suspect was arrested by police who responded to the MAX station at East Burnside Street and 102nd Avenue.
That same day, the union that represents most TriMet employees called on the agency to hire more fare inspectors instead of increasing the presence of armed police and private guards.
"Our advocacy for a demilitarized, decriminalized transit system isn't simply a response to the recent, high-profile violence against transit riders in Portland. It is a longstanding and carefully considered response to the increase in violent assault against our own union brothers and sisters," Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 President Shirley Block wrote in a June 2 letter to the public.
Need for safety solutions
TriMet has claimed to have solved safety problems in the past, most notably in 2008, the year after a 71-year-old Sandy resident was beaten with a baseball bat by a 15-year-old suspect gang member at the Gresham Transit Center. Like the recent attack, the Nov. 3, 2007, beating reverberated throughout the transit system, including charges that TriMet was not doing enough to keep the system safe from the Guardian Angels.
Ironically, the day before the attack, Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis ordered city police to start patrolling the MAX lines. "TriMet has maintained that crime along the light-rail line is simply an issue of perception, but the citizens that I represent tell me a much different story," Bemis wrote to Hansen on Nov. 2, 2007. "Accounts of public intoxication, gang activity, assault, harassment, and drug activity — not to mention fare avoidance — are prevalent."
In response, former TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen convened a safety summit to hear from passengers and all jurisdictions along the lines. Even the Oregon Legislature got involved, with former state Rep. Rick Metsger (D-Beaverton) demanding that TriMet submit a comprehensive safety plan to the 2008 session.
"We need to find some real solutions and stop sweeping this under the rug," Metsger said during a joint hearing on TriMet safety issues by the House and Senate transportation committees.
The pressure resulted in TriMet overhauling its Transit Police operation. Among other things, it formalized its relationship with law enforcement agencies in Washington County, which had not fully committed to patrolling the MAX line to Hillsboro. And it hired 15 more officers, bringing the total to a budgeted staff of 43. Five of the them were early hires for the planned 2009 opening of the MAX Green Line to Clackamas Town Center.
"I want everyone who rides TriMet or would like to ride TriMet to feel safe, secure and that they can call upon any TriMet employee for help or to answer a question," Hansen told the Portland Tribune at the time.
Then, between 2010 and 2012, TriMet phased out the free transit service between downtown Portland and the Lloyd District that it had offered for more than three decades. Although the agency's board of directors cited a need to increase revenue during the Great Recession when it finally eliminated free MAX and Portland Streetcar service, there was also a general perception that trouble makers were boarding MAX trains in Fareless Square (later renamed the Free Rail Zone) and riding throughout the system without paying fares.
The changes did not satisfy everyone, however. Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts predicted crime would increase in his county when the Green Line opened — especially at the regional shopping center where it ends.
Then, in early August 2010, off-duty Clackamas County Sheriff's Lt. Paul Steigleder was assaulted by two men on a MAX train. He was coming back from Portland International Airport with his wife, off-duty Clackamas County Sheriff's Sgt. Debbie Steigleder.
The incident, in which Paul Steigleder hurt his knee, led to a public debate over whether the new MAX line had increased crime in the county. TriMet cited statistics showing few crimes per day on the line since it opened. The sheriff's office responded that overall crime had increased in the county, although many of the offenses were minor, such as shoplifting. The controversy contributed to the decision by the Lake Oswego City Council against extending the Portland Streetcar into their town.
Different safety concerns have been raised in recent years. Transit advocacy organizations are now arguing the threat comes from TriMet itself. They charge that Transit Police officers and fare inspectors target minority and low-income riders. Even after the attack, one of the organizations, OPAL Environmental Justice, issued a statement saying the transit police were the real problem.
"Many people we meet on the bus are justifiably afraid of police due to countless historical abuses. Exploiting this most recent tragedy to ramp up transit policing is a false solution that could lead to more death and abuse of our communities," it reads.
TriMet's thin blue line
According to TriMet, riders and employees still report hundreds of crimes on the bus and rail lines every year, many of them serious.
For example, in 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, riders reported 24 aggravated assaults, 47 assaults, 12 robberies, 132 thefts and 44 incidents of harassment and menacing. That same year, riders reported 85 thefts and 22 incidents of vandalism at Park & Ride lots. And TriMet employees reported 13 aggravated assaults, six assaults, six thefts and 16 incidents of harassment and menacing.
The total number of reported crimes has fallen in recent years, however. Crimes reported by riders dropped from 442 in 2013 to 259 in 2015. But crimes against customer vehicles increased from 92 in 2013 to 107 in 2015. And crimes reported by TriMet employees dropped from 41 in 2013 to 28 in 2014 before climbing back to 41 in 2015.
The Transit Police are not a separate TriMet agency, Instead, TriMet contracts with 15 law enforcement agencies within its jurisdiction for officers to patrol its lines and properties. McFarlane believes this is the best model, saying his agency's mission is providing transit, not police services.
"We get the best of the best officers, and other officers from all the agencies can respond if we need them," McFarlane says.
The transit police budget is $12,422,804 in the current fiscal year that ends June 30. The requested budget for the next fiscal year is $13,627,404, including funds for the 15 additional officers and $9 million for a new Central Precinct. TriMet already anticipates hiring additional officers in the future for the new MAX line planned in the Southwest Corridor between Portland and Tualatin through Tigard.
What can riders do to protect themselves?
There were no TriMet Transit Police officers or fare inspectors in the MAX train when Jeremy Christian began screaming anti-Muslim and other slurs at two teenage girls on May 26, apparently because one of them was wearing a hijab.
In cases like that, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane says passengers should immediately notify the driver by pressing the alarm buttons near the doors. Drivers then contact TriMet dispatchers, who call 9-1-1 for help.
"Dispatchers are better able to coordinate the responses than drivers," McFarlane says.
If the incident continues to escalate, McFarlane says riders should also call 9-1-1 on their own to report it at the time.
Directly confronting someone causing a disturbance is risky, however, as the attack on the three Good Samaritans showed.
"The three victims were incredibly heroic to stand up to hate like that, but people need to be careful," McFarlane says.
Transit Police agencies
The 15 agencies providing officers and supervisors are: the Portland Police Bureau; the Beaverton Police Department; the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office; the Forest Grove Police Department; the Gresham Police Department; the Hillsboro Police Department; the Lake Oswego Police Department; the Milwaukie Police Department; the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office; the Oregon City Police Department; the Port of Portland Police; the Tigard Police Department; the Tualatin Police Department; the Washington County Sheriff's Office; and the West Linn Police Department.