TriMet weighs politically charged transit safety changes
TriMet is grappling with how to improve safety on the regional transit system while honoring the racial equity demands of the social justice movement that erupted following the death of George Floyd.
The agency's board of director spent more than three hours discussing the issues during an online retreat on Nov. 19. After reviewing the research and recommendations produced during a months-long community involvement process, the board committed to creating a Crisis Intervention Team to respond to those experiencing mental health issues, increasing the presence of a wide range of agency employees to assist riders on the system, and conducting agency-wide training on anti-racism, cultural competency, mental health, and de-escalation techniques.
"Discrimination and intimidation have no place in our community, and that includes our transit system," said TriMet General Manager Doug Kelsey. "We've listened to our riders, employees and the community and will take decisive action to ensure our system is safe, secure, accessible and free of bias."
But TriMet did not announce a final decision on what is perhaps the thorniest issue it faces: the future of the Transit Police, a division comprised of armed office from the jurisdictions within the service district that patrols the transit system.
The division has been heavily criticized by activists who say the officers focus on people of color and make members of marginalized communities fearful. Responding to such criticisms, the Portland City Council voted to pull the Portland Police Bureau out of the division on Dec. 31.
But the research presented to the board paints a more complicated picture. It suggests a high level of support for the Transit Police among TriMet riders. According to a TriMet survey, a lack of transit police makes half of all riders feel unsafe. The percent is higher for Blacks (67%), non-English speakers (58%), and people of color (54%).
Only 24% said the presence of transit police makes them feel unsafe. The most opposition to the Transit Police came from young people, including young whites, the research revealed.
"I'm having trouble reconciling what appears to be contradictory information," TriMet Board Chair Bruce Warner said during the retreat.
"What is clear is, ideas about the police are complicated," said DHM Research President Michelle Neisse, who conducted focus groups and analyzed responses from community based organizations for the agency.
TriMet is in discussions with the remaining 11 law enforcement agencies that dedicate personnel to the Transit Division. The final size, shape and budget of the division will be determined by all of them before their next fiscal year budgets take effect on July 1. The current budget is $16 million, including Portland's share.
"The future of the Transit Police Division is currently in flux and will be changing in the next year as part of regional efforts to reimagine public safety," said TriMet Public Information Officer Tia York.
The proposed Crisis Intervention Team will take longer to implement. The timeline presented Thursday calls for TriMet to have a more detailed plan in nine months and to have a pilot program ready to start in the next two years.
Transit Police support varies
Practically all governments in the region reacted to the Black Lives Matter and related protests following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in the custody of the Minneapolis police on May 25. Most initiated community listening sessions despite the restrictions on in-person gatherings because of the COVID-19 restrictions. The Portland City Council went much further, promptly announcing it would pull its officers and commanders out of the Transit Police and the School Resource Officer programs in all schools districts within the city limits. The council also cut the police bureau budget that took effect on July 1, 2020, by $27 million — including a $15 million reduction that eliminated the Gun Violence Reduction team, formerly known as the Gang Enforcement Team, which had been accused of disproportionately focusing on the Black community.
TriMet responded by creating the Reimagining Public Safety & Security Transit project. It included forming a Public Safety Advisory Committee, conducted a survey of nearly 13,000 riders and commissioned additional work by DHM Research to analyze input from more than 40 community-based organizations, such as the Latino Network, the Rosewood Initiative, and the VOZ Workers' Rights Education Project. Survey questions asked how safe or unsafe riders felt before the COVID-19 pandemic — which has raised unrelated safety issues — and why.
The transit agency also pulled $1.8 million out of the Transit Police budget to be allocated as pilot projects for the committee's recommendations.
TriMet's board of directors was presented with the research and recommendations at its retreat. Some of the research might seem surprising to those who have only followed the issue from the news coverage leading up to it. According to the TriMet survey, most riders — 61% — believe the greatest threat to their safety is other riders who are too aggressive, perceived to be abusing drugs, or having mental health issues.
The research also showed that only four community-based organizations prioritized the elimination of the Transit Police. They were the Coalition of Communities of Color, Portland United Against Hate, We All Rise, and the Youth Environmental Justice Alliance at OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. Several other organizations wanted fewer armed officers and more unarmed TriMet employees on the system.
"When there's a situation that requires a police presence, there's a desire that they have that support," said DHM Research's Neisse.
But a large percent of those surveyed acknowledged that armed officers should not respond to every safety threat. There was widespread agreement — 88% — that those suffering a mental health crisis could be better helped by trained mental health professionals. Staff training came in second at 81%, followed by more transparency about reported crimes at TriMet at 76%.
"When you look at the survey, most felt the Transit Police were necessary, but could be reformed," Neisse said.
Find more information about the project on its website at trimet.org/publicsafety.
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