Unable to Find Cops, TriMet Increases Unarmed Security

In two years, it has nearly doubled its security staff.

In November 2020, the depths of the first pandemic winter, TriMet administrators raised alarms about public safety on Portland’s transit system.

“TriMet’s security staffing is low,” read the findings from an agency presentation given to community groups. Denver’s similarly sized transit system had nearly three times as many “nonsworn” security personnel. BART, in San Francisco, had five times as many cops.

According to a customer survey presented at an August meeting of TriMet’s board of directors, nearly half of respondents listed “better security” as one of the top improvements that would entice them to take the bus or MAX more often. And the agency desperately needs to bring back ridership, which has yet to recover from the pandemic.

So TriMet has gone on a hiring spree. In two years, it has nearly doubled its security staff: from 125 to 229, with plans to bring on 90 more. “We have been actively increasing our security presence on the system as fast as we can,” says TriMet spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt.

Although TriMet is beefing up its security staff, it’s losing cops. TriMet relies on partner agencies to staff its Police Division. In 2021, The Portland Police Bureau, short-staffed itself, pulled all of its officers out of the Transit Police and put them back out on the street.

Since 2019, the number of cops in the TriMet Police Division has fallen from 55 to 18. And although TriMet has funding to pay salaries for 65, only the Milwaukie Police Department has stepped in to fill the gap. The city offered one officer, who will join the division in December.

So TriMet is turning to unarmed security guards instead. It’s contracting them from Portland Patrol Inc. and Allied Universal Security Services. And despite a “national shortage of security officers,” the agency has more than doubled its number in two years thanks to an $8-an-hour pay hike.

The effort to add more unarmed security personnel on buses and trains goes back years. After TriMet beefed up police patrols in the wake of a double murder on a MAX car in 2017, protesters stormed a board meeting in protest, arguing that armed cops intimidate people of color and were the wrong solution to the problem.

Last year, TriMet launched a new Safety Response Team, made up of “contracted security staff” trained to do social service outreach. The team now has 48 members.

Maia Vásconez-Taylor, a community organizer at Bus Riders Unite!, says the team is a “step in the right direction.” But, she adds, “it’s not perfect.”

It, like TriMet’s unarmed “customer safety officer” program, contracts guards from Portland Patrol. The company made headlines late last year for hiring Michael Stradley to train new recruits. Stradley is the former West Linn police lieutenant who left in disgrace for his involvement in the wrongful arrest of a Black man.

Armed Officers in the TriMet Police Division

2019: 47

2022: 18

Unarmed TriMet Security Staff

2020: 78

2022: 211

Source: TriMet

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