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PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — The number of armed cops patrolling bus stops and train cars across the region has dropped to a 25-year low as the Multnomah County sheriff prepares to take charge of the shrinking regional police force next month.
TriMet’s Transit Police is budgeted for 51 sworn officers, on paper at least. But the actual staffing count for 2021 is just 19 officers — the lowest amount since 1994 — officials said at a Multnomah County board briefing on March 9.
Some of those vacant positions have been shuffled into TriMet’s proposal for an unarmed Safety Response Team, but that deployment as a pilot project is projected to begin this summer. Sworn staff levels peaked in 2015, when 67 officers were assigned to transit patrol.
“It’s very difficult to hire law enforcement, and the anticipation of bringing on more officers in the very near future is probably very low,” said TriMet executive for safety and security Marla Blagg.
TriMet once contracted most of its police force, as well as its leadership team, from the Portland Police Bureau, but a vote by City Hall ended that relationship last year. PPB command staff cleaned out their desks in August, while patrol officers and sergeants left in December.
“It obviously left a big gap in the staffing of sworn positions,” said Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese.
The Washington County Sheriff quietly pulled his deputies off transit duties and back onto patrol as well, though Reese said he expects they “will re-engage once they overcome some staffing challenges.”
The current Transit Police includes one MCSO lieutenant, two sergeants and six deputies, with the remainder provided by police departments in Gresham, Beaverton, Hillsboro and the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office.
Poll: Riders want police
A survey of 13,000 riders found that 45% say a lack of transit police makes them feel unsafe, compared to 29% who said the presence of cops triggered feelings of unsafety. A majority (63%) of those 65 years or older said they felt unsafe due to a lack of police, as well as 55% of those who identified as Black and 48% identifying as people of color.
“Females, limited English proficiency communities, seniors and, yes, people of color feel less safe riding public transit without some form of presence (from police),” said John Gardner, who leads TriMet’s Diversity and Transit Equity Department. “There are other ways to create a sense of safety, but that’s where people default.”
Gardner added that TriMet traced around 2,500 survey respondents to a focused “anti-police sentiments” campaign organized on Twitter. “We decided not to remove those respondents,” he said, but “that’s one of the reasons we think that 29% is so high.”
“There’s all kinds of ways that presence can work,” noted Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. “I think we’re struggling here a little bit.”
$82 million contract
Beyond its 19 sworn officers, the Transit Police force is budgeted for 114 unsworn officers who are contracted from security firms PPI and G4S, though TriMet said those ranks are thin compared to other transit agencies providing 100 million trips annually.
Armed officers responded to nearly 7,000 calls in 2020, while the unsworn staff reported 13,000 calls and contacts. Neither unit has conducted fare enforcement since TriMet decriminalized riding without paying in 2018. A separate 18-person department now enforces fares through civil citations.
“We have seen an uptick in weapons, non-destination riders and behavioral issues regarding trash, biohazards and just recently, not wearing masks,” said Blaag. “The number of incidents involving staff assaults has increased 53% since 2019.”
The intergovernmental agreement, if approved by Multnomah County, would last four years beginning in April, followed by three one-year extensions, though either party could back out with 30 days’ notice. TriMet will reimburse the county for as much as $82.5 million during that time, based on a “fee for service” model, meaning the final price could vary if more or fewer officers are deployed.
At roughly $12 million a year, Commissioner Sharon Meieran called it “an enormous sum,” though Reese said it would pay for another lieutenant, plus employees to handle administrative, fiscal and I.T. duties. Blagg added that TriMet has already brought some admin work in-house, for cost savings of $250,000 yearly.
“This is just TriMet putting a bucket aside for police services,” she said. “It doesn’t say we will spend that money, but it is saying we will not exceed that amount.”
The Multnomah County Commission is slated to vote to approve or reject the intergovernmental agreement on March 18.