Ana del Rocío says she heard the woman’s demand before she saw her.
“Stop, I need your proof of fare,” del Rocío remembers TriMet fare inspector Deanna George saying last March, as del Rocío stepped off the MAX and onto the Old Town/Chinatown station platform. She remembers the glint of George’s gold badge, not unlike one worn by a police officer. Behind George, several actual police officers stood surveying the crowd as six TriMet inspectors checked passengers’ tickets.
For del Rocío, George’s request wasn’t uncommon—as a transit-dependent Portlander, she was used to TriMet’s periodic fare inspections at MAX platforms. It’s also regular for TriMet transit police—who are made up of officers from multiple jurisdictions, including the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), and contracted out to TriMet—to stand guard during these mass inspections. But this time, del Rocío said she had left her annual TriMet pass at home. (Editor’s Note: According to TriMet, del Rocío did not have an annual pass at the time.)
“I was ready to just take the ticket and go,” says del Rocío, who is the state director of Oregon’s Color PAC. “I was already running late to a meeting.”
But George insisted del Rocío give her name, perhaps to track down del Rocío’s annual pass in the TriMet system. Her full name, Ana del Rocío Valderrama, didn’t come up. That’s when the drizzly March afternoon took a turn. George asked del Rocío for her address, which del Rocío refused to share. “I was scared, I asked her why she needed it,” del Rocío recalls. George waved over Transit Police Officer West Helfrich, who then tried to look her up in the Portland Police Bureau computer system. Again, her name didn’t appear. According to del Rocío, Helfrich grabbed her roughly by her coat, and demanded she give him her address, social security number, and passport. She refused to give anything more than her name and date of birth.
Later, del Rocío realized that in the confrontational moment, she had given George and Helfrich the name she’s used since birth, Ana, instead of her legal name, Rosa—which is probably why her name didn’t come up in a search. That—and Helfrich had misspelled her last name when entering it into his computer.
“I come from a family and community where being asked where you’re from implies, ‘What’s your legal status?’"
Del Rocío was promptly arrested for giving a police officer false information and was shuttled to Multnomah County Detention Center.
In July, TriMet announced it would no longer take people to court for failing to pay for bus or MAX fares, and instead only fine passengers caught riding without a ticket. For low-income riders, TriMet added, those fines can be reduced or exchanged for community service hours. The transportation agency’s decision was partially in response to community pressure to decriminalize transit-reliant passengers who don’t have a ticket—especially those who aren’t always able to afford the daily $5 needed to take the MAX to work or school.
But this recent change doesn’t impact passengers like del Rocío, who, during a fare-evasion check, was arrested for something unrelated to fare evasion. The change also hasn’t cut back on the number of police officers involved in TriMet’s fare-check sweeps. For transportation and civil rights advocates, TriMet’s continued close relationship with law enforcement shows that the transportation agency has no intention of shielding passengers from punitive arrests. In the process, TriMet may be violating riders’ constitutional rights.
Both the Oregon and US constitutions specify that police need a “probable cause” to stop a member of the public. In a pre-trial hearing held on August 22, del Rocío’s attorney Noah Horst asked the court to throw out any evidence collected from del Rocío after Helfrich joined the confrontation, arguing that the officer had no probable cause to stop del Rocío. Allowing police officers to use a routine fare inspection stop as an excuse to interrogate someone is unfair, if not illegal, Horst argued.
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In court, George explained that del Rocío was entirely free to leave during the interaction—before Helfrich showed up. “Anyone can walk away,” said George. “I can’t stop them.” But, she added, she often waves over police officers if someone ignores her. George said she only called over Helfrich because del Rocío was acting “unusual.”
“She wasn’t making eye contact, I actually thought she might be autistic,” George said. “The last thing I want to do is frighten someone with disabilities.”
Del Rocío is not autistic. But, del Rocío told the court, she was certainly frightened. “I come from a family and community where being asked where you’re from implies, ‘What’s your legal status?’” said del Rocío, who is Peruvian American. “In this climate of increased targeting on immigrant communities, I didn’t feel safe giving out my address and social security number. I definitely didn’t feel like I could just walk away.”
Regardless of George’s explanation, Deputy District Attorney Katie Suver claims Officer Helfrich was allowed to stop and ask del Rocío questions as soon as she stepped off the MAX. “When the defendant failed to provide valid proof of fare, moments after walking off the train, he had reasonable suspicion and probable cause that a violation occurred,” wrote Suver in a court document.
Leland Baxter-Neal, a staff attorney with the Oregon ACLU, disagrees. “Getting checked for a ticket is not a reasonable suspicion,” he says. But, he added, subjecting riders to dubious questioning happens to TriMet passengers every day.
“Transit officers subject hundreds of riders to suspicious stops... and it largely happens to people of color or homeless people,” he said. “We have police officers running warrant checks on riders just for not having a ticket. And to what end?”
Asked about the correlation between fare enforcement and transit police, a TriMet spokesperson told the Mercury that it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Some state courts have begun cracking down on police stops involving public transit. In November 2017, a Cleveland judge ruled that transit police violated passengers’ constitutional rights when conducting fare checks on city buses. But in Cleveland, transit police work alone, meaning there was no civilian fare inspector to initiate the stop, as in TriMet’s case.
“We have police officers running warrant checks on riders just for not having a ticket. And to what end?”
TriMet’s reliance on civilian inspectors, however, may be fading out. According to Andrew Riley, spokesperson for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, which represents TriMet employees, TriMet used to have 32 fare inspectors on staff about a decade ago. Now it has four. Riley says those inspectors have since been replaced with private security guards and armed transit police.
“Over the past decade, we’ve watched TriMet shift from a community model to a corporate model,” says Riley. “We’re not opposed to transit police, [but] our concern is how they’re prioritizing punitive fare enforcement... over things like assaults on bus drivers or passengers.”
Riley says the union has called on TriMet to reinstate its old “Rider Advocate” program, which hired community members to ride various bus lines to assist passengers or, if an issue arose, acting as liaisons with police. The advocates, dressed in brightly colored TriMet vests, were trained in de-escalation techniques and non-violent communication.
“They served as a non-threatening presence,” Riley says. TriMet cut the 15-year program in 2009, citing budget cuts. Not long after, TriMet began hiring private security guards and more transit police to patrol buses and trains. This switch also aligns with a steady decline in TriMet’s ridership—nearly a 4 percent drop between 2009 and 2017. Advocates for TriMet’s users say that it isn’t a coincidence that changes in security coincided with the drop in ridership.
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“The increased militarization of TriMet makes people less likely to ride,” says Shawn Fleek, spokesperson for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, which represents transit riders through its Bus Riders Unite program. “It’s as simple as that.”
OPAL also supports the idea of bringing back rider advocates to improve, if not eliminate, interactions between officers and passengers like del Rocío, whose trial is scheduled to begin in September.
“The justice department expects so much of people who do very little wrong,” says Fleek. “For many riders, TriMet is the only way they can get to work, or to a doctor’s appointment, or to visit family. It’s a lifeline. Are these really the people we should be punishing?”