PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Richard Williams was a TriMet driver for 4 years. Over that time he had his share of unpleasant and scary interactions with passengers.

“It can get very confrontational very quick and it can get physical and dangerous very fast,” Williams told KOIN 6 News. “I was assaulted numerous times. I think I told you earlier 3 times I had guns pulled on me. Eleven times I had knives pulled on me. I can’t tell you how many times I was verbally assaulted. I’ve lost count on how many times I was physically assaulted.”

Former TriMet bus driver Richard Williams, September 2022 (KOIN)
Former TriMet bus driver Richard Williams, September 2022 (KOIN)

TriMet ridership has rebounded to more than 1 million riders per week since the pandemic calmed down. But assaults and threats toward operators and drivers have increased. Staffing shortages have forced the agency to cut service.

On September 18, TriMet cancelled two bus lines and reduced service to 8 others on lines the agency says have “low ridership or less demand.”

ATU 757 president Shirley Block said the perception of operator and driver safety is affecting hiring, based off what she’s heard at hiring fairs.

“We had several people who laughed when we approached them to come to work for TriMet,” Block said.

TriMet operators moved Portlanders through the pandemic and the protests. But their accounts of threats and harassment have pushed some to the edge.

Another TriMet driver who asked to remain anonymous said she’s had “scary situations” in the 9 years she’s been behind the wheel.

She considers herself assaulted 3 times — she was spit on, had gravel thrown at her as she walked to the bus, then dealt with a man who threw a box of masks at her and then escalated to rocks.

Passengers, she said, have tried to bring knives and machetes on board. She sought therapy and said she’s been diagnosed with PTSD and acute stress disorder.

“There are no 8-hour shifts. I work a lot of hours,” she told KOIN 6 News. “Day in and day out being bombarded with those images and that treatment and then being assaulted. It’s just too much.”

What the statistics show

“Right before the pandemic happened we started to see a spike where we started to see over 100 a year,” said Amalgamated Transit Union 757 Vice President Frederick Casey. “Then when the pandemic hit that trend kept going.”

“The entire area has seen an uptick in crime,” said Andrew Wilson, the executive director of TriMet Safety and Security.

Wilson presented statistics to the TriMet Reimagining Public Safety Committee in August, although those statistics only go back to 2020.

But they show TriMet’s employees have been threatened hundreds of times each year, a total of 467 times in 2021. They project less this year, about 334 incidents.

Documented assaults are also in the hundreds, but those are rising slightly — from 220 last year to an estimated 228 by the end of 2022.

  • Assaults/attempted assaults with weapon2021: 61 2022: 62 projected
  • Spitting2021: 67 2022: 61 (projected)

Statistics presented to TriMet board

Weapons have been reported dozens of times and drivers have been spit upon dozens of times — as a respiratory virus spread at pandemic levels.

“We feel that deeply when one of our operators goes through a security incident like that,” Wilson said.

TriMet bus driver Donica McCown, September 2022 (KOIN)
TriMet bus driver Donica McCown, September 2022 (KOIN)

Donita McCown, an 8-year TriMet driver chosen by the agency to speak with KOIN 6 News, said she’s been spit on. But that’s the worst she’s had to deal with.

“I don’t feel the bus is unsafe,” McCown said. “If I did I wouldn’t be driving it.”

Restructuring public safety

But union VP Casey and President Shirley Block get text alerts when one of their members is harassed or assaulted: a supervisor assaulted at the Gateway Transit Center, 3 assaults in one day on July 25.

Some days there are no assaults. But Casey said this is an example of what operators face.

Wilson said these instances are rare and he expects less threats and assaults as more riders return to the system.

“The vast majority of our ridership will not experience a significant security issue today when they ride the system,” Wilson said. “But I do think it’s important to know that the communities that we are operating our transit system through are having struggles right now, and I think that’s an honest answer for anybody living in the Portland metro area.”

TriMet safety and security head Andrew Wilson, September 2022 (KOIN)
TriMet safety and security head Andrew Wilson, September 2022 (KOIN)

The solution TriMet is looking at is restructuring it’s public safety presence on the system, though staffing has been an issue.

Transit officers, historically, have been the security on the TriMet system, using 18 deputies from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. TriMet said they would like to have 65.

The sheriff’s office hopes to add 2 dedicated Hope Team officers to the transit system who specialize in homeless outreach and helping people to services.

That’s a similar role TriMet has envisioned for its safety response team. There are 26 members so far with a hope to expand to 48 next year.

Fare enforcement is often the largest point of conflict, both Casey and drivers told KOIN 6 News. TriMet is taking that role away from drivers and operators.

Customer safety specialists will enforce fares and other policies on trains and buses. The agency now has 18 positions and hopes to double it to 37.

But ATU 757 President Block think that’s not effective. “It’s not enough of them,” she said.

“We need to make sure that our riders feel safe out there and that they see a presence,” Wilson said. “In terms of how many people that it’s necessary to provide that on a bus or a MAX train or a platform, etcetera, that’s a very loose number. It could vary by times of day, the kinds of activities out there, how many riders are out there.”

A TriMet bus in Portland, September 2022 (KOIN)
A TriMet bus in Portland, September 2022 (KOIN)

In years past Block and Casey said the union members didn’t feel supported by TriMet. They felt targeted by masking policies and fare reminders.

But last summer, new TriMet General Manager Sam Desue brought on a new labor relations director and public safety and security director, Wilson. Since then, Block and Casey said the relationship has improved and they’re cautiously optimistic for change.

“The new GM they have now, he seems to listen,” Block said. “He wants to work with us.”

The TriMet Reimagining Public Safety Committee will continue to meet through 2023 and will present recommendations to the TriMet board next fall.