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Is the new Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line about to bring more crime to Clackamas County?

Maybe not, according to an analysis of crime statistics and TriMet’s Green Line, which opened three years ago, and other light-rail lines around the region.

The Green Line had slightly more crimes reported than average, with 12 percent of reported crimes systemwide, but it runs through higher-crime neighborhoods in Portland such as Lents and Montavilla, while the Orange Line will go through Sellwood and Brooklyn — comparatively low-crime neighborhoods, according to crime-rate statistics — before it passes through Milwaukie.

“All the Green Line does is, it brings people together into one space,” says Commander Mike Crebs, head of the Portland-area Transit Police Division, which provides officers for TriMet’s trains and buses.

Citizens’ concerns about increased crime hitching a ride on the new MAX line are understandable. In September 2009, when the Green Line opened its Clackamas Town Center transit area, crimes reported in the area increased by 32 percent. Calls to police and the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office increased by 56 percent in the patrol district surrounding the shopping center, where the MAX line ends at a large parking garage. Most of the reports concerned robbery, theft and stolen vehicles.

“The change in crime and vagrancy has increased from none to everywhere else on the MAX,” said Ryan Mooney, the watch station manager at Fast Fix Jewelry and Watch Repair in the mall. “I’m walking around the shopping mall and bums are asking me for change.”

Before the Green Line opened, Mooney added, “it was a shopping mall, not downtown.”

“Every day there’s been trouble on the (Green) Line, it’s horrific,” said Jim Knapp, a former candidate for the Clackamas County commission whose political action group, Clackamas Rail Vote, opposes the new $1.49 billion Orange Line under construction from Portland State University through Southeast Portland and Milwaukie to Oak Grove.

Knapp’s group is leading a “Let Us Vote” campaign to put the county’s contribution to the new light-rail line, and any future rail projects, on a countywide ballot. Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts has endorsed the measure, in part because he’s concerned that policing the new line will be difficult, given budget projections.

 - A MAX rider at the Hollywood Transit Center expresses his discontent after receiving a citation for not having a proper fare. Crime - but not crime rates - tends to increase around MAX stations.

Bringing in more people

But there’s no clear evidence that the new Orange Line will bring a wave of crime to the region. Even though there have been more total crimes reported around Clackamas Town Center, this would not be a meaningful trend to worry about unless it outstripped the increase in traffic at the center, says Harry Saporta, TriMet’s safety and security executive.

“Whenever you have a transportation system, you bring in more people,” Saporta told the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners last month. “So just by virtue of more people, you are going to see some increase in criminal activity.”

With 17,500 boardings each week at just the Green Line’s two stops in Clackamas County, the Green Line has brought more people to the mall. Clackamas Town Center businesses say that traffic at the mall has increased significantly since the line’s 2009 opening.

“To see whether the Green Line’s really impacting the crime trends, we’d have to determine how many additional peo ple are being brought to the Clackamas Town Center on the train,” said Crebs.

Other lines offer lessons

An increased number of crimes around a new rail line does not always mean that the line was bad for the community, Crebs says. When the Yellow Line along North Interstate Avenue opened in 2004, he says, “There was an increase in the number of crimes that occurred on that road.”

There was an average of 174 crimes reported on Interstate Avenue in 2001, 2002 and 2003, the three years leading up to the line’s opening. From 2004 to 2010, there was an average of 235 crimes per year, 61 more than before the line opened.

“This is not surprising to me at all,” Crebs said.

But he found that the increase in the number of people brought by the line to the area was at least proportionate to this increase in crime.

“I think the crime rate either stayed the same or went down,” Crebs says.

When police analyzed crime statistics in neighborhoods surrounding Interstate Avenue, annual averages for those years only changed from 93 to 96 crimes. There was a surprisingly big jump the year the Yellow Line opened, from 89 reported crimes in 2003 to 128 in 2004. Crimes then steadily decreased, and were below even the lowest pre-Yellow Line year studied by 2007.

Of the 2004 spike, “I don’t know why that happened,” said Crebs’. He will soon do a similar analysis on the Green Line.

Nationally, other studies have come to similar conclusions as Crebs. A report in December’s Journal of Urban Affairs by a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte examined police calls and reported crimes along Charlotte’s MAX equivalent, the LYNX. Researchers used monthly crime data from before the line was announced, through the time after it began operating.

The report’s authors concluded that not only did the light-rail line not bring more crime, but also in some cases the line could help keep crime down.

“Once the stations open, the crime decrease is maintained, and does not return to preannouncement levels,” the researchers wrote. “This dispels rail transit opponents’ notion that light rail ‘breeds crime.’ In fact, we offer counter evidence that suggests light rail may actually ‘impede crime.’ ”

Researchers speculated that this reduction may have been the result of the economic growth brought to those areas by the lines.

Extra patrols when it opens

Portland’s MAX lines differ, making prediction for the Orange Line difficult, Saporta said.

According to online information made available by the Portland Police Bureau combined with 2010 U.S. Census data, Sellwood-Moreland and Brooklyn combined had one reported crime for every 159 people in 2010. Lents and Montavilla had one reported crime for every eight people — a much higher crime rate.

“There are differences in the type of criminal activity that’s in a neighborhood,” said Saporta.

While he says TriMet noticed that Lents in particular had a high rate of auto theft, for example, “we’re not seeing that necessarily in the Orange Line neighborhoods.”

“The transit system reflects the community in which it passes through or stops,” said Crebs.

The Orange Line will be watched closely when it opens, Crebs says. Transit police have one sergeant and four officers in their South precinct, which includes Clackamas County. Crebs hopes to increase those numbers to two sergeants and eight officers patrolling the Green and Orange lines, if funding allows.

“From the very beginning, we’re going to set the message and the tone,” he said. “We want to make sure people don’t think, ‘this is a place for me to get on and make trouble.’ “

Then, Crebs said, patrols will be ratcheted back as police gain an understanding of what is required to keep the line safe. On July 17, the Milwaukie City Council authorized the use of federal Homeland Security funds to help cover the extra patrol required with the new line.

The total number of crimes in Milwaukie can be expected to rise with the coming of the Orange Line, even if this does not mean a higher crime rate. Some people believe that even if this does not mean a higher crime rate, it is still reason for worry.

“If you bring more people, you’re going to have to hire more cops, and the taxpayer is going to have to pay more out of his wallet,” said Knapp.

But Crebs says focusing on crime is a distraction.

“There’s bigger problems on the street,” he said. “You’re much safer on transit than you are on the streets of our city.”

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