Six people in blue and yellow uniforms stand together
Members of TriMet's new Safety Response Team. Courtesy of TriMet

There is a new crew of yellow and blue-clad representatives on the TriMet system: the Safety Response Team.

According to TriMet, the Safety Response Team launched in early November and acts as a “first point of contact” for riders, deescalates potential conflicts, and connects riders with other regional social services. The team was born in response to Portland’s racial justice protests, with a focus on creating a more equitable public safety system. Some bus rider advocates, however, worry that because the new team’s members are employed and trained by the same private security firm that trains TriMet’s pre-existing transit security, the new team will not create any substantial change to public safety on the transit system.

“They're being trained with the same values once again,” said Maia Vásconez-Taylor, an organizer with Bus Riders Unite, a local coalition of public transit users. “Just because they're unarmed doesn't mean that they don't have a policing mentality.”

The Safety Response Team was an idea that originated in TriMet’s Reimagining Public Safety Committee—a community advisory group created in effort to make security forces on TriMet “more safe, welcoming and equitable for all” following the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020. The committee advised the transit agency to increase the presence of TriMet personnel who respond to issues within the transit system before involving the police and support riders and respond to issues , leading to the creation of the Safety Response Team.

Saddled with backpacks full of snacks and first-aid supplies, the 24-person team is unarmed, trained in de-escalation, and stationed at various transit centers, stops, and bus and MAX lines to interact with riders. The team members’ presence is intended to discourage inappropriate behavior on the TriMet system, like loitering, public drinking, or skateboarding. Safety Response Team members are expected to intervene when they see inappropriate behavior, using conflict resolution training, de-escalation skills, or other social skills to address and end the unwanted behavior. If a team member encounters a more serious incident like theft or assault, they are expected to “observe and report” the incident to TriMet Operations Command Center, transit police, or other emergency services depending on the situation. The conditions under which a situation escalates beyond a Safety Response Team member’s responsibilities and requires an armed security employee is not explicitly defined in the position contract.

In some ways, the safety response team offers new services to public transit riders; team members come from social services backgrounds like behavioral health or social work, have the knowledge to connect riders with other community resources like housing or mental health services, and do not issue citations for fare evasion or other rider misconduct.

In many other ways, the new team is similar to TriMet’s existing unarmed security presence, Customer Safety Officers. Like the Safety Response Team, Customer Safety Officers are expected to deter unwanted behavior on the TriMet system with their presence and intervention, but officers can also enforce TriMet code by issuing warnings and citations.

Notably, the Safety Response Team and Customer Safety Officers are both employed and trained by Portland Patrol Inc (PPI), a private security firm that has come under criticism for employee behavior and hiring decisions.

PPI also contracts with the Clean & Safe district, an area of downtown where business owners pay for services not offered by the city, like graffiti removal and PPI security guards. PPI employees who serve the Clean & Safe district have been accused of harassing unhoused Portlanders in the downtown area.

PPI also recently hired Michael Stradley, the former West Linn police lieutenant who played a key role in the wrongful arrest of Portlander Michael Fesser, to train Safety Response Team members. In 2017, Fesser’s boss called on then-West Linn police chief Terry Timeus, a personal friend, to investigate Fesser on bogus theft charges after Fesser, who is Black, complained of racist harassment he experienced at work. Stradley participated in Fesser’s wrongful arrest, claiming that Fesser was a known gang associate and enlisting West Linn’s gang enforcement team to arrest Fesser. Later, Stradley admitted he had no direct knowledge that Fesser was in a gang.

“I don’t feel safe with any of my kids riding on TriMet,” Fesser told the Oregonian after Stradley was hired to train the Safety Response Team. “It’s unsafe for any Black kids to ride TriMet if he’s training anyone working at TriMet.”

After the Oregonian revealed Stradley would be training the new Safety Response Team, TriMet asked PPI to use another trainer for any of the employees involved in TriMet contracts.

For Vásconez-Taylor, the fact that the Safety Response Team members are employed by PPI negates their backgrounds in social services and de-escalation training.

“At this point, it really doesn’t matter what happens because the community has no faith in PPI,” Vásconez-Taylor said. “Inherently, we're not moving away from anything other than they don't have a gun anymore. They're still operating with their biases and their prejudices that are informed by racist policing.”

TriMet notes that while PPI employs and trains Safety Response Team members, the transit agency provides additional training to the team.

“PPI provides their employees with training in their policies and the basics of public safety standards, while TriMet provides more training that represents our values,” TriMet spokesperson Tyler Graf wrote in an email to the Mercury. “TriMet provides oversight to ensure that their treatment of riders is fair, equitable and lawful.”

According to TriMet’s contract with PPI, which the Mercury obtained through a public records request, the transit agency is responsible for providing team members training on “TriMet’s approach to safety and security,” emergency response procedures, and TriMet’s codes of conduct. PPI is responsible for all other security training.

The Safety Response Team is still learning the transit system and developing a presence on TriMet, according to the transit agency. As the team ramps up its services, Vásconez-Taylor and other organizers with Bus Riders Unite will be keeping a watchful eye on the team, while assisting the Portland Streetcar in developing its Ride Ambassador program, a transit safety team also spurred by last year’s racial justice and policing protests.

The Portland Streetcar’s Rider Ambassador pilot—a safety team of up to four people set to launch in the new year—was created with Bus Riders United’s input. The Rider Ambassadors will be trained by third-party social services-oriented groups, according to Vásconez-Taylor, not policing and security-focused organizations.

“It's really important to us that [the Rider Ambassador program] succeeds because we really need more examples that show this method works,” Vásconez-Taylor said. “The community likes this method and feels safer with this method.”