Feeling uneasy about last week’s broad-daylight stabbings on MAX? This news probably won’t help: After two straight years of double-digit declines, crime on TriMet’s light-rail system is on the rise again.
What’s more, TriMet officials say their decision last year to reduce fare enforcement rather than further slash schedules and routes could be exacerbating the problem.
Researchers in the emerging field of transit criminology say nothing — not security or blasting classical music at stations — deters crime like the regular presence of police and fare patrols.
A year ago, Oregon’s largest transit agency once had 30 “supervisors” dedicated to going after fare evaders while deterring troublemakers on trains and station platforms. After last fall’s cutbacks, however, there were only 13.
“We made some tough cuts in fare enforcement to preserve service as much as possible,” said Shelly Lomax, TriMet’s executive director of operations. “Now we’re asking, ‘Did we go too far?'”
Even when TriMet riders are caught without a valid fare, inspectors usually give them a talking-to rather than a $175 ticket, according to records obtained by The Oregonian.
In 2010, as the agency struggled with a $27 million shortfall, inspectors gave 20,139 verbal warnings to fare cheats and issued 5,102 citations, according to TriMet records. The year before, they gave out 6,027 citations and issued about the same number of warnings, 20,154.
They also issued fewer bans, or “exclusions,” to trouble-prone riders — 3,319 compared with 3,816 in 2009.
After last week, TriMet has temporarily increased patrols on its trains.
On March 22, someone stabbed a 44-year-old Hillsboro man during an argument on a westbound MAX train. It happened in downtown Portland in the heart of the evening rush. There wasn’t transit cop or TriMet supervisor in sight as the man with knife jumped off and disappeared.
Four days later, at 1 p.m. Saturday, a 19-year-old woman was stabbed in the stomach at the MAX station on East Burnside Street and 102nd Avenue. Police say it was a gang dispute.
However, Lomax said there is no solid evidence that fare evasion and crime run together. So, there are no plans, she said, for TriMet to start handing out more citations.
Warnings, which also require the offender’s name to be entered into a mobile database, do enough to “cause people to think twice” before trying to get a free ride again, she said.
Of 13 regular MAX commuters interviewed by The Oregonian this week, only one said he had ever been asked for proof of fare — once in four years. All expressed frustration that TriMet isn’t more aggressive with fining freeloaders.
“The rules are clear — you need to pay,” said Craig Whitten, a Portland State University public-safety officer who takes MAX from the Hollywood stop to downtown daily. “I don’t see how a warning does anything to keep the transit system safe.”
At first glance, TriMet’s 2010 crime numbers are striking, showing a 14 percent spike from 2009. But Transit Police Cmdr. Mike Crebs says that also reflects the first full year of the Green Line, which added 8.3-miles of service.
“It’s not a fair apples-to-apples comparison,” he said.
Take out the 56 crimes reported on the Green Line, Crebs said, and the total crimes increased only 1 percent to 471.
Of course, in 2008, MAX crimes dropped 18 percent. In 2009, they were down another 19 percent. And last year’s uptick happened even as the Portland area’s crime rate continued to decline.
The worst stop was Gateway, with 72 reported crimes. Parkrose/Sumner on the Red Line came in a distant second with 21. The safest stop? The Mt. Hood Avenue station, which was the only one with zero reported crimes since 2007.
“I think we’re still in pretty good shape,” Lomax said, noting that there were 620 crimes along the four MAX lines in 2007.
Of course, since then, the transit police force has doubled from 29 to 58.
TriMet officials said they’re making security improvements where they can.
Today, the agency will announce a federal grant to install security cameras at the 10 MAX stations currently without cameras, most of which are in Washington County.
Security officials are also enthused by early results from a $500 experiment that fights crime by blasting classical music at the 162nd Avenue stop. Calls to 9-1-1 appear to be down.
But Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a UCLA professor of urban planning and author who studies crime prevention on public transit, said neither is suitable replacement for transit police and TriMet supervisors riding the trains more often.
“Someone is far less likely to act out if they’re worried about getting caught,” she said. “Also, when you ask riders what makes them feel safer, they prefer the presence of transit officers over cameras.”
Loukaitou-Sideris’ research has shown that light rail is far more susceptible to crime than buses, largely because of the presence and watchful proximity of the driver.
Cash-strapped transit agencies around the country are increasingly turning to closed-circuit cameras on platforms and vehicles to fight crime, largely because they’re cheaper than hiring security personnel. But experts say there is little evidence that they deter a robbery or assault.
TriMet officials say they know that maintaining a regular presence on the lines is important. But Lomax said the remaining supervisors have been spread thin by other duties. If a MAX train breaks down, for instance, they might not have time to inspect fares on that shift.
“When the recession hit,” Lomax said, “we knew we were going to get to a point where we bottomed out. As we prepare for the next budget, we’ll take a good look at this.”