TriMet plans to create a pilot program for a mobile crisis response team, a proposed alternative to sending police or security personnel to respond to transit users experiencing a mental health crisis.
TriMet staff unveiled the crisis response program plan to the TriMet Board of Directors Thursday, during the board's annual retreat, introduced as one of 25 different steps the agency can take to increase public transit safety in the Portland metro region while relying less on armed transit officers. The plans ranged from simple structural improvements, such as improving lighting at transit stops, to more complicated investments, like increasing TriMet's customer service presence and creating new emergency reporting systems.
These steps are the result of a “reimagining public safety” planning process TriMet began this summer, inspired by racial justice protests sparked when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. TriMet board member Kathy Wai said Thursday that the list of recommendations was “huge” for TriMet, adding that the commitment to exploring alternatives to policing was a chance to “learn—and unlearn—a lot of things society has taught us.”
“In the last five decades [that] TriMet has been around, we haven’t been able to push ourselves into having these really difficult conversations,” Wai said Thursday.
The crisis response team would likely share some commonalities with the Portland Street Response, a city of Portland pilot program that was supposed to launch in Lents this year, but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That plan will substitute mental health professionals and social workers for police when responding to some 911 calls.
But John Gardner, TriMet’s director of equity, inclusion, and community affairs, said that it likely would differ from other crisis response teams because “we’re building a transit-focused model.” The timeline presented Thursday calls for TriMet to have a more detailed plan in 9 months, and have a pilot ready to start in the next two years.
This and the other recommendations presented by TriMet's Transit Public Safety Advisory Committee Thursday drew on survey responses from riders and employees; focus groups comprising different cultural demographics; and the input of local community organizations like Self Enhancement, Inc., the Coalition of Communities of Color, the Lewis & Clark Gender Project, and the Latino Network.
The rider survey, which TriMet staff noted was not meant to be a scientific poll, drew over 12,000 responses. It found that over 60 percent of respondents said they felt either “very safe” or “somewhat safe” when using TriMet before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it also found that Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color were more likely to say they felt unsafe. Those groups were also more likely to identify “lack of transit police” as a reason why they felt unsafe. Two non-security focused safety factors—better lighting and the presence of other riders—were the things that made survey respondents overall feel the most safe.
TriMet’s focus groups elicited similar responses. DHM Research President Michelle Neiss, who oversaw the focus groups, said Thursday that the varied responses suggest that some kind of additional TriMet staffing presence is needed to help both riders and transit operators feel safer, particularly for riders of color and those who don’t speak English—but that “there’s not a mandate” on what exactly that presence should be, and whether it should be focused on security or customer service.
“What I see is that people aren’t necessarily calling for one or the other to be there,” Neiss said. “They just want someone to be there.”
Neiss added that at one focus group of immigrants from African countries, a participant said, ‘“In Africa, we had conductors [in addition to operators] on the bus’... just someone else on board was what they were looking for.”
In the last year, TriMet has increased its team of fare enforcers—TriMet staff who check that people have paid for their tickets, but don’t carry weapons and aren’t police officers—from a team of three to 18 people. But both the rider survey and the focus groups found that fare enforcers are considered the least helpful people to have onboard from a rider safety perspective. Customer service personnel were considered most important. However, TriMet operators felt differently.
TriMet’s surveys and focus groups kicked off this summer, around the same time Mayor Ted Wheeler announced that the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) would be withdrawing from the regional Transit Police Division, a group of officers from 14 different regional agencies that respond to calls for service on TriMet. Other police agencies, including the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, are still participating in the division, but PPB’s withdrawal significantly reduced its ranks. Some ideas presented in the plan—including the mental health crisis response team—could potentially help fill in the gaps left by a reduced amount of transit cops.
While the suggestions presented Thursday identified ways TriMet could lessen its reliance on police and security, they fell short of ceasing to use them altogether.
“We would like more use of highly trained non-police security personnel,” said Marla Blagg, TriMet’s director of safety and security. “Policing should be regional, consistent, and coordinated across jurisdictions.”
Other safety items suggested to the TriMet board Thursday include: Anti-racism and de-escalation training for all TriMet staff; prioritizing transit stop safety improvements in neighborhoods that have a high population of people of color; launching a safety communications campaign; creating a “rider advocate” staff team; and looking for ways to increase funding for structural safety improvements, such as through a private foundations. You can view the full list and board presentation here.
TriMet's board was largely supportive of the suggestions, though some members expressed doubt as to whether the crisis response team pilot would be able to effectively respond to calls without the help of police.
The suggested timelines for these 25 recommendations range from nine months to two years. TriMet plans to create a new committee to oversee the plans, and include the plans in its next budgeting process in 2021.
TriMet’s revenue has declined sharply this year, thanks to decreased ridership during the pandemic. But Marcus Mundy, the president of Coalition of Communities of Color and a leader on the Transit Public Safety Advisory Committee, told the board that TriMet would likely have to invest considerably more than its initial pledge of $1.8 million if it wants to see these reforms through.
“I don’t have a number in mind, but I will say that your budget reflects your values, your budget reflects your priorities,” Mundy said. “I could say ‘ten times that, 100 times that.’ And that would be real, that would be reasonable.”