PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Even as TriMet’s Board of Directors approved its budget for the 2021 Fiscal Year Wednesday, questions remain about how the agency plans to roll out what it called a pilot for new community-based public safety approaches.

The plan includes establishing a panel of local and national experts to advise the agency on national best practices for transit security, equity and community engagement in safety and security; piloting new non-police response resources, such as mobile crisis intervention teams for mental and behavioral health issues; and holding community-wide listening sessions, of which the format and timing have still yet to be determined, a TriMet spokesperson told KOIN 6 News Wednesday.

TriMet’s ‘Rider Advocates’ wore vests and hats as part of their official uniforms. They were unarmed community members paid to monitor transportation activities on and off buses and trains, helping resolve conflicts and offer customer service. It was a program that ran from 1994-2009 (undated photo courtesy NECN),

Last week, TriMet announced it would reduce its existing armed police contracts by six positions and redirecting additional funds totaling $1.8 million for the effort, which followed a decision by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler that the city would no longer take part in Transit Police operations.

The announcements were made in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that have gripped the nation, as well as Portland, in recent weeks, sparked by a white Minneapolis police officer murdering George Floyd, an African American man, by kneeling on his neck for over eight minutes.

The union representing TriMet’s workers, an environmental justice group, and a community organization are pointing to “Rider Advocates” as a possibility for a more community-centered public safety approach, a position of non-armed community members who were trained to help resolve conflicts on public transport that was cut out of the agency’s budget more than 10 years ago.

OPAL Environmental Justice is a group that fights for transit and environmental equity. Their Campaign and Communications Manager, Lee Helfend, told KOIN 6 News the changes that were discussed at the TriMet Board of Directors meeting Wednesday “are simply not enough.” They are instead siding with community members’ requests to “defund police,” Lee said.

“TriMet wants to hold more community listening sessions, but communities of color, and Black leadership specifically, have demonstrated that this issue has to be addressed now. We cannot continue to wait; we already know policing does not make our communities safer,” Lee wrote to KOIN 6 News via email.

OPAL has been pushing for a return of the Rider Advocate program in recent years, which involved community members directly placed in a public safety role, trained in de-escalation techniques for resolving conflicts, and there to offer support in a customer service capacity to passengers.

A TriMet ‘Rider Advocate’ helps a community member in Portland. The public safety position was comprised of non-armed community members from 1994-2009 (undated photo courtesy NECN).

“Responses to issues on transit need to be collaborative, not combative,” Lee said. “Rider Advocates were able to connect riders to services, promote good behavior, and riders had better perceptions of TriMet after interacting with these Advocates.”

From 1994-2009, TriMet fully funded Rider Advocate positions. At its height, there were eight of these positions, for which the agency contracted with Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods to operate. The program was cut in 2009 due to budget cuts following the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

The year they were de-funded, the program was the recipient of the city’s annual Public Safety Partner Award. Supporters of the Rider Advocate positions included then-Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman and then North Portland Precinct Cmdr. Jim Ferraris, who said the cuts would “have a detrimental effect on public safety” at the time.

In 2018-19, OPAL resurrected their own citizen-led advocate program where they trained community volunteers in de-escalation techniques and customer service, thanks in part to a city grant of $17,500. Up to 25 of the volunteers had been trained, and a few of them even regularly went out onto public transport to assist community members. Though the revival of the program was never officially endorsed or sanctioned by TriMet, it was the hope of organizers that the agency would eventually adopt the program back into it’s budget.

The OPAL advocate program has since stopped, OPAL Executive Director Huy Ong told KOIN 6 News via email.

“With the resistance of Trimet, it became unsustainable for us to continue as a lone non-profit,” Ong said. “We are proud of engaging riders on alternatives to a militarized transit system, and we believe that more cooperation and resources from multiple agencies — such as the county, city, TriMet, Metro, and community based organizations — would support a successful program.”

When asked whether a return of Rider Advocates would be a possibility if community members asked for them at one of the proposed community-wide listening sessions, TriMet spokesperson Roberta Alstadt said it may be considered.

“We are open to a variety of approaches and will evaluate suggestions based on community feedback and expert advice to ensure a public safety approach that is effective and equitable.”

The agency is still envisioning what the non-police resources might entail, Alstadt said, but that they are interested in “looking at mobile crisis intervention teams for mental and behavioral health issues and other programs with unarmed personnel.”

A group photo of ‘Rider Advocates’ a now-defunct paid position of TriMet of non-armed community members to monitor transport in a public safety capacity, helping with de-escalating conflict and customer service (undated photo courtesy NECN),.

In addition, more long term public safety changes to TriMet’s policies may be made following the listening sessions and advisement of committee of local and national experts on best practices for equity, safety, and community engagement.

With the cut of six police officers from its Transit Police Division, the total number of armed officers dropped from 76 to 70, Alstadt said. TriMet still retains 99 contracted non-armed security personnel across the transit system, including 80 G4S security personnel and 19 transit peace officers with Portland Patrol Inc.

Amalgamated Transit Union 757 Vice President Assistant Business Agent Jonathan Hunt told KOIN 6 News he remembers representing the Rider Advocates as a union officer back when they were still a paid position at TriMet.

“I’m all in favor of bringing our Rider Advocates in. I loved the program that we had previously,” said Hunt, whose union represents approximately 3,500 out of TriMet.

Hunt explained that the Rider Advocate position was an “inner city based program that brought folks out of the neighborhoods, gave them opportunities for jobs that may not have had an opportunity previously,” some of whom successfully moved on to becoming a bus operator.

Hunt said it’s also important to strike a balance between non-police presence on public transport and still respecting the necessary role of police who must come in during emergency situations, adding he greatly appreciates anyone in uniform assisting TriMet operators.

“I think it’s absolutely important that we make sure that we’ve got the right resources out there. I don’t think a badge and a gun is necessarily always the answer. I think our folks need to be having those resources when needed though.”

Overall, Hunt said, the operators have been expressing a need for more of a public safety presence on public transport, even if it is a non-police presence. But bus and train operators should also get a “quick response” from police officers when they are needed.

“They’re taking the first jab, hit, stab, spit before anybody else.”

One of the biggest things Hunt said he hopes TriMet will do differently going forward is allowing more open communication between the TriMet Board, the union and other community stakeholders and for the agency to truly implement the changes demanded by those groups.

“We’ve had [listening sessions] before and they feel like they’re trying to get the message to folks. But from what I’ve observed and what I’ve heard from folks, it’s more of TriMet kind of over handing it,” Hunt said.

A ‘Rider Advocate’ patch which was worn by community member contracted by TriMet to assist riders on public transport, from 1994-2009 (undated photo courtesy NECN),

Adam Lyons is the current Executive Director of Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, the community organization that operated the Rider Advocates under contract with TriMet. Though the Rider Advocate era was before Lyons’ time as ED, he told KOIN 6 News that he has much support for the program based on what he knows about it.

Lyons added that the $1.8 million in reallocation of TriMet’s funding to go toward community-based public safety approaches was something he considered “a good start” and that the Rider Advocate program “is a stellar model of what it could look like.”

“NECN and community members never wanted it cut in the first place,” Lyons said.

In addition, he said another good idea for an investment could be that TriMet partner with a local non-profit like Portland Street Response “to have trained and well resourced advocates to respond to issues on public transportation.”

Lyons said if a Rider Advocate program were to be reinstated, NECN may have interest in being involved in the operations once again and that other non-profits in Northeast may also be interested.

“There are clear safety issues on public transportation and having paid community members riding the bus or MAX as a resource for riders seems like a sensible solution…People loved that program.”