Last Friday, Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis announced plans to increase police presence this week on and around MAX trains and platforms through his city.
Bemis' announcement Nov. 2 followed several highly publicized incidents over the last few months of assaults, gang activity, and even riots near the light-rail tracks on the outer east side.
(And just 36 hours after the mayor's announcement, a 71-year-old Sandy man was beaten Saturday night with a baseball bat after getting off MAX at Gresham Central Transit Center. The victim, Laurie Chilcote, is hospitalized in fair condition. A 15-year-old boy was arrested and is being held on charges of attempted murder, first-degree assault, and first-degree criminal mischief.)
But according to Gresham Police Capt. Tim Gerkman, the mayor's announcement came as a response not to statistical increases in crime, but rather to citizens safety concerns that have flooded Bemis' office in recent weeks. "It's not so much that we're seeing an increase in crime specifically," said Gerkman. "Our goal is to make people feel safe, make people feel comfortable, feel like the police department is responding to their concerns." Gerkman cites "rowdy and inappropriate behavior" as the basis for riders' discomfort.
In fact, TriMet reports a decrease this year in crimes against TriMet passengers. Through September of 2007 there have been 425 crimes committed throughout the transportation system, compared to 530 for the same period in 2006. Separate figures for 2007 broken down by geographic areas weren't immediately available.
Gresham police will be increasing fare inspections in hopes of cracking down on rowdy riders. In a letter to Gresham's mayor on Friday, TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen welcomed the police department's support to "augment our patrols and missions."
And in the wake of Saturday's assault, TriMet released a memo outlining new strategies to keep riders safe. These include increasing the number of contracted security guards on trains and platforms, and removing graffiti as soon as possible.
But what's it really like out there? Are MAX trains through the east side nothing more than brightly lit havens of vice and debauchery?
Hours after the mayor's announcement, I rode the MAX for more than two hours through Gresham from 10:30 PM Friday until 12:45 AM Saturday to get at least a sense of what goes on late at night on these trains and platforms. Here's a rundown:
Things started off quietly on the eastbound MAX. The train rolled past the East 102nd Avenue stop with a few other passengers, and people seemed to be in a good mood. A group of four teenage girls headed home from downtown, escorted by one of the girls' mother.
At the 181st Avenue stop, the girls—and just about everyone else—climbed out, and the train continued without incident to the turn-around point, Gresham Central Transit Center.
Heading back westbound, a group of six young men in their late teens or early twenties got on at the 188th Avenue stop. Things weren't so quiet.
The young men were wearing big, baggy sweatshirts, and one was rapping loudly and obscenely along with music coming from a set of headphones. Rude? Yes. Trouble? No. They didn't seem to be bothering any of the few other passengers.
Two more of their friends boarded at the next stop. One of them had a skateboard that he immediately rode up and down the aisle of the train.
In the words of Capt. Gerkman, this would probably fall into the "rowdy and inappropriate" department. But again, no one on the train seemed bothered, and we rode together all the way to the 82nd Ave. stop.
During a (very long, very cold) wait of 25 minutes for another eastbound train, a young couple walked past a group of shivering people to a bench at the very end of the platform.
There, the boy sat down and the girl straddled him, and they embarked on a serious make-out session. There was gyrating and groping of all kinds. Everyone else on the platform seemed to be desperately trying to pretend it wasn't happening. It was the most "inappropriate" activity I saw all evening.
Finally heading east again, now after 11:30, there wasn't a lot of talking going on, and numbers started to thin as we made our way past the E. 172nd and E. 182nd stops. There was only one other person in my car for the last two stops before Ruby Junction, the end of the line.
Waiting at Ruby Junction at 12:15 am to head west, I met two riders, both of whom had fallen asleep on an eastbound train and missed their stops.
One, a 14-year-old girl, said she had never seen any criminal mischief on MAX. She did admit that "sometimes me and my friends get on the train together, and we get a little crazy."
Our other companion on the platform was an extremely intoxicated 21-year-old man named C.J. He claimed he had been drinking all day and had passed out and missed his 122nd Ave. stop.
When informed of the Gresham police department's plans for MAX, he responded with "Shit, I guess if they're doing that I wouldn't have been able to pass out like I just did."
On the ride back to Portland, C.J., my new best friend, pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniel's on the train and sipped off it from time to time. Very generously, he offered it to me several times. I declined.
There were several people on my final westbound train through Gresham. As we passed back into Portland the numbers continued to grow with no problems. People were chatting happily about their nights.
The only TriMet employee I saw the whole night was a track maintenance worker outside of my window near the 99th Ave. stop. I never saw a fare inspector or any security.