While local concerns about the safety of public transit are being amplified in the wake of the racially motivated stabbing that left two dead and another wounded on a MAX light-rail train on May 26 in Northeast Portland, Gresham residents are still riding.
For 22-year-old A.J. Stevenson, taking MAX is the best way to get to work near the Gresham Transit Center from his home in the Rockwood neighborhood. He was horrified by news of the attack, and was reminded to stay cautious and aware of his surroundings while on the train.
"This whole thing made me realize, if possible, I should be accompanying my female family members when they take MAX," Stevenson said. "You need to be able to recognize the drunks and drug addicts."
The victims of the attack stepped in to defend two teenage girls, one of whom is a Muslim, from a known extremist who was screaming racial threats. The alleged attacker, Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, is in court being tried for the incident. He faces several charges, including two counts of aggravated murder and two counts of second-degree intimidation.
"Those men were just trying to defend two people who were wearing different clothes. It's insanity," Stevenson said.
A TriMet driver, who has worked in that capacity for more than three years, agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. The driver used to operate MAX trains, but switched to driving a bus because of the increased control he has during bad situations.
"On the bus I could have called somebody, but on MAX you are in a compartment and don't know what is going on," he said. "I was shocked something like that happened (near) Gresham, though as a driver we deal with stuff all the time."
Strong ridership stats
Despite the recent attack, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane has told Pamplin Media Group the trains and buses are safe to ride. Statistics show crimes against passengers are relatively low — especially when accounting for the number of people who ride every day. TriMet said there are fewer than two reported incidents a day, which is about one in every 231,000 rides, and those are usually minor problems relating to property crimes and vandalism.
People are still using public transit, with only a slight downturn in the total number of rides. Since usage information has been collected, the highest number of TriMet users occurred in 2012 with 80,042,810 originating rides — which means if a person transfers buses mid-commute, it still only counts as one. Last year saw the lowest number of rides, with 77,179,120, since the Westside Express Service commuter rail was included in the system.
The first three months of this year the MAX Blue Line averaged 57,233 rides per weekday. During the same period last year, there were 58,967 rides per weekday. That is a drop of 2.9 percent. TriMet has only tracked ridership by line in 2017 and 2016, so information before that is unavailable.
Gale Macconber, a 29-year-old Gresham resident, still rides public transit. He doesn't blame TriMet for what happened.
"It's not their fault, because they can't control who gets on the vehicle," Macconber said.
TriMet has committed to increasing the number and presence of transit officers and contracted security staff patrolling the system daily. Before the attack, 62 transit police officers worked out of four precincts, including the Gresham Police Department. Those numbers are expected to be expanded — at least in the short term.
"TriMet is safe, but we want our customers to perceive it as safe," McFarlane said.
TriMet also has reached out to local departments to request additional support in the form of patrolling officers at the MAX stations and bus stops for an indefinite amount of time going forward.
"We have been and will continue to assign additional officers to engage with TriMet properties," said John Rasmussen, spokesman for the Gresham Police Department. "This includes riding trains."
With the growing concerns in the community for personal safety and the well-being of others, the Gresham Police Department wants to remind people to be mindful of their surroundings while interacting with fellow riders.
Officers advise people to:
• Be aware of what is going on around you.
• Be a good witness.
• Call for the police to help if a situation appears to be getting out of control or violent.
• If forced to interact, think about how you'll engage and how you'll disengage — which includes walking away.
• Use your words and actions in ways that de-escalate the confrontation.
During a public safety forum in Gresham on June 1, assembled law enforcement officials answered questions from community members — most of which inevitably centered on the MAX-train attack.
Many of their suggestions echoed those of the Gresham Police Department, with the main recommendation being to always be aware of what is going on around you. Several also suggested carrying pepper spray.
"Pepper spray can be a good solution, because if you make a mistake nothing is permanent," Multnomah County Sheriff Michael Reese said.
In addition to law enforcement, good Samaritan groups such as the Guardian Angels also have made a renewed effort to patrol public transit. The well-known volunteer program, easily recognizable by their red berets and jackets, has a chapter in Portland.
That chapter has gone through periods of inactivity, but the recent MAX attack has spurred people's interest in joining the organization.
"People don't need to be afraid of riding MAX," Stevenson said. "They just need to be smart."