PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — TriMet and Multnomah County officials say they’ve taken steps toward creating a crisis intervention model to respond to mental or behavioral health issues on the regional transit system.

But full implementation of the new model, which aims to shift away from using armed police as the first responders to such issues, is still a long way away, officials said at a Multnomah County Board of Commissioners briefing Tuesday, Jan. 18.

TriMet’s Transit Public Safety Advisory Committee recommended developing a crisis intervention model in the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man by Minneapolis police. The committee also recommended agency-wide training on topics such as anti-racism and cultural competency, as well as increasing the presence of TriMet personnel on the system, to make it safer, more welcoming and more equitable.

The recommendations followed a review of an outreach campaign, which included surveying more than 12,500 TriMet riders and engaging more than 40 community organizations.

In March 2021, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office took supervision of TriMet’s transit police, months after the Portland Police Bureau stepped away from that role. The contract came with a $82.5 million budget, or roughly $12 million over a seven-year period, for which TriMet would reimburse the county.

At the time, county commissioners emphasized the importance of developing a new crisis intervention model, which would include deploying a team of personnel trained to respond to mental or behavioral health issues across TriMet’s system, instead of relying on armed police to do so.

TriMet aims to complete outreach for the development of the crisis intervention model by mid-2022, or the end of the current fiscal year, according to Leah Drebin, who was hired to coordinate the Multnomah County Health Department’s partnership with the Sheriff’s Office and TriMet on crisis intervention.

“While there’s been a recent change in TriMet’s leadership, and we’re still in the process of nailing down a hard timeline, I anticipate implementing pieces of the crisis intervention pilot model by the end of fiscal year 2023 and a full launch of the program by the end of fiscal year 2024,” Drebin said.

The agencies plan to hit a few milestones while it continues to develop the crisis intervention model, Drebin said, such as finalizing information about stakeholders and creating a data tracking system for mental health incidents transit police respond to.

She also noted the agencies will continue to observe and analyze mental health and de-escalation training that TriMet security teams are currently receiving.

About half of the 19 transit police officers currently staffed by the Sheriff’s Office have received “advanced crisis intervention trainings,” said Rebecca Sanchez, equity and inclusion manager for the sheriff’s office. Sanchez said the office is currently leading other training of TriMet security teams, including training related to “mental health first aid.”

The number of transit police officers currently staffed, the same number since at least early 2021, is the lowest it has been since 1994. The agency has been affected by a local and national shortage of officers, which is limiting TriMet’s ability to hire more officers, said Tyler Graf, spokesperson for TriMet, via email.

In addition to transit police officers and about 90 other security staff contracted by private security firms, TriMet has deployed a new Safety Response Team as part of its efforts to create a new crisis intervention model.

Marissa Clarke, senior community engagement specialist for TriMet, said the agency launched the Safety Response Team in late September 2021.

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The Safety Response Team, which currently has 24 members with additional members coming, is tasked with supporting riders with navigation, referrals to healthcare, housing, mental health and addiction resources, and basic supplies such as bottled water, Clarke said. According to TriMet’s website, the team is also tasked with patrolling the system to “discourage inappropriate behavior,” offering conflict resolution and performing first aid.

Since its launch, the Safety Response Team has had 3,900 contacts with riders.

Clarke said TriMet’s Reimagining Public Safety Advisory Committee continues to meet monthly to discuss TriMet public safety initiatives with an equity lens.

She said the committee plans to release a request for proposals at the end of January to contract with outside entities for increased diversity, equity and inclusion training courses.