Ana Del Rocio is a first-generation Peruvian American who rides MAX trains in Portland daily, often with her two small children.

In the wake of the May 26 double murder on a MAX train, you might expect Del Rocio to be eager for more police to patrol public transit.

She's not.

"I've had at least half a dozen horrible experiences with transit police in the three years I've been in Portland," Del Rocio says. She recalls a day in 2015 when she was eight months pregnant and transit police kicked her off a MAX train because she couldn't access her electronic fare on her cellphone.

"I want my kids to be safe from fear," she says. "I want to challenge the idea that police equals safety."

In the days after the fatal stabbings of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche and Rick Best, TriMet pledged to increase police presence on public transit. The agency was already moving in that direction, and the high-profile crimes galvanized TriMet's push.

The transit agency says extra security is needed immediately to reassure fearful citizens that public transit is safe to ride.

But some rider advocates and the bus drivers' union swiftly panned TriMet's proposal—intensifying an existing debate over police officers on Portland's trains and buses.

They say that armed police aboard transit are an ineffective presence, and worry that TriMet will use the killings as a justification for policies that disproportionately target and harm people of color.

A transit police officer rides a MAX train. (Joe Michael Riedl)
A transit police officer rides a MAX train. (Joe Michael Riedl)

The debate might seem surprising in the days after a shocking double murder allegedly committed by a white supremacist (who himself had been repeatedly kicked off the MAX for failing to show proof of fare). But it reflects national unease with police treatment of minorities—and local outrage over police killings of black men, including Terrell Johnson, 24, who was fatally shot by a Portland transit police officer May 10.

"Increased criminalization of low-income people after a violent incident makes zero sense," says Shawn Fleek, an organizer for Bus Riders Unite, an advocacy group that for the past seven years has pressed for lower fares and fewer citations for poor riders. "Throwing police at the system doesn't equal safety. The correct solution is not to add additional personnel with deadly weapons."

Before last week, 65 armed police officers patrolled MAX trains. Such officers typically issue fare citations, patrol train stations, arrest suspected criminals, and provide surveillance.

The officers are on loan from 15 local law enforcement agencies: the Portland Police Bureau and neighboring city police departments like Gresham and Beaverton. They are trained police officers on call to respond to TriMet incidents. They must always carry guns.

"Transit police [exist] to help keep people safe. It is that simple," says Harry Saporta, TriMet's executive director of safety and security. "We want to assure everyone that the system is safe to ride."

Just two days before the killings, TriMet's board of directors voted to approve a 2018 budget that included $1.6 million for 15 additional fare inspectors. They would not carry guns.

In the days after the MAX killings, TriMet is re-evaluating its plans and is now weighing the idea of arming the 15 new inspectors.

"This is all part of the bigger picture of transit security," Saporta says. "[They] are primarily fare enforcers, but they will help with security on the system. They're an extension of transit police in terms of riding and observing."

Transit police patrol a MAX train this week. (Joe Michael Riedl)
Transit police patrol a MAX train this week. (Joe Michael Riedl)

In the week after the killings, TriMet also hired 15 security guards—not police officers, but private security carrying guns. Those hires are in addition to the agency's 15 existing contract security guards. TriMet says the increased police presence will continue at least through the end of the Rose Festival.

TriMet's beefed-up security measures, according to Saporta, are "not based on crime statistics, they are based on one really unfortunate event."

It's unclear whether crime on TriMet buses and trains is going up. Data released by TriMet last year shows rider-reported crimes decreased 40 percent between 2013 and 2015. TriMet has not released 2016 crime statistics, saying they are still being finalized.

Rider advocates also oppose TriMet's plans for an $11 million transit detention center in the Rose Quarter—a building which activists call a "TriMet jail." (TriMet spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt says the building is not a jail and would include just two holding cells, and would mostly serve as an office for transit security managers.)

In the days after the MAX slayings and TriMet's announcement of increased policing, activists decried the call for more armed officers. They were soon joined by a powerful ally: the transit workers' union.

On May 31, Amalgamated Transit Union Division 757 released a statement condemning TriMet's rush to increase transit security. The union's central complaint: Transit police don't respond fast enough to calls for help from bus drivers and train operators.

"We call them 'maybe police,'" says Henry Beasley, a 10-year TriMet bus driver. "They may be there and they may not be."

Saporta says officers respond as quickly as possible. "If there are specific circumstances [of slow responses], I would love to know, because I am unaware [of them]," he says.

The union instead wants TriMet to increase fare inspectors—hired by TriMet, unarmed and, not least, represented by ATU.

Meanwhile, rider advocates say employing "transit ambassadors" would be more effective than police at making people feel safe. "For people of color, people with mental health issues or young homeless riders, police are a danger," Del Rocio says.

Their proposed alternative: have volunteers ride transit to offer services to other riders, such as calming tense situations.

TriMet says that wouldn't do much good against a knife-wielding madman.

"We are like many other cities nationwide with transit police," Saporta says. "We all have the same purpose and mission, which is to keep people safe."