PORTLAND, Ore. -- After two murders aboard a MAX train on May 26 and a highly publicized assault of a MAX driver the very next week, TriMet and its transit union are looking at ways to increase safety for both employees and passengers.
Both sides are in contract negotiations, with a deadline to declare an impasse as of June 8.
The labor union for transit employees says 2017 is on pace to break last year's record of 54 assaults on employees. It's only June, and the union says there have been 29 documented assaults so far.
KGW asked frequent TriMet riders about security.
"I feel like there should be more [security] on there because I've seen a lot of people get on MAX who are trouble makers, causing problems, yelling and cursing, and there's never anyone on there to stop them," said Dion Tolbert.
We asked Cherise Scovel if she felt safe riding the MAX every day.
"Yeah, I feel safe. Well, I kind of feel safe, it depends on where I am and what time of day," she said. "I would like to see more police just monitoring every single MAX that goes by, or at least have them at the platforms to make sure everyone is safe."
More transit officers are working the offered overtime, monitoring trains. The union alleges it's just the normal seasonal increase every year during the Rose Festival, but TriMet maintains the number of officers is over and above that normal increase.
TriMet says this next fiscal year budget will add in 15 more "community peace officers," who may not necessarily be cops. They're trying to figure out what would work best.
"Last week was a bad week for us. We had three assaults, one that made it into the news media, and two that didn't," said Jared Franz, a leader with the transit union.
Franz says they aren't in favor of more traditional armed police on buses and trains.
"Transit police means they are police officers first, which means they have to respond to situations all around the area. So you can increase transit police all you want, it doesn't mean an increased presence on transit. It's also a very, very expensive solution. For much less money we can have a demilitarized, decriminalized solution that increases the safety presence on transit while also making it more pleasant for people."
Franz means returning to the old model of full-time fare inspectors on every line, checking tickets and helping with routes. They are also trained in de-escalation tactics and could possibly stop assaults before they happen.
"Employees get spit on, they get punched. Our female operators get a lot of unwanted touching, there's a lot of cursing and unruly behavior aboard buses and trains where drivers feel caught in the middle because they're getting one message from the agency to not intervene, but there's a reasonable expectation by passengers that drivers will at least try to do something," he said.
Franz says drivers are not allowed to carry personal protection devices like mace and have been disciplined in certain cases for fighting back.
Roberta Altstadt, spokesperson for TriMet, says they're testing out partitions on certain buses to keep drivers separated from assaults but still able to interact with passengers. She also says they're testing a function of their electronic fares at a station on the Orange Line that would require payment before you can take an elevator to the platform and board the train.
Altstadt says with 60 trains running at one time, it would be impossible and very expensive to have a supervisor or inspector on board every one. They use random fare checks as a way to keep people honest. And with TriMet's open system, unlike many other cities who have underground subways, turnstiles or more barriers to people who don't pay would be difficult to implement.
Frequent rider Steve Garcia agrees.
"Sure, people talk about more security, but how much can you afford? They can't always be there all the time. That's my point, people should rise, community should be community, and people should rise together to help each other on board," he said.
Steven Caldwell, the man charged with beating up a MAX train driver on June 2, was arraigned on misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct charges Monday. Police say he was on the Blue Line toward Gresham in the afternoon when he started yelling about free speech. The driver warned him over the loud speaker to quiet down.
When he didn't, the driver stopped and walked down to the train car check on the situation, and Caldwell allegedly started punching and kicking him. Passengers separated the two, and Caldwell was arrested.
Because the union and TriMet are still in contract negotiations, they are not in agreement yet with what should happen. Many people say Portland is growing into a big city now and our transit system needs to find money to pay for real security to act like it. You would never see a pilot come out of the cockpit to deal with a passenger problem on a plane, and some riders say Trimet drivers should only worry about getting everyone on board to their destination safely.
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