Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Police on the train by Tony Maxymillian

I saw a police officer on the train this morning. Two, in fact, checking people for valid fare. For those who haven't experienced it, Portland has an odd light rail system, very convenient, but run entirely on the honor system. There are no gated platforms, no ticket agent, no conductor. A passenger buys a ticket from a machine by the tracks, and gets on a train. The train operator is in a sealed compartment, has no contact with passengers, and the tickets aren't checked.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out all passengers may not have valid fare when riding the train. Good for them if they can work a system with designed flexibility, and thanks for a system that provides some leeway for folks who might be in a tough spot and still need to get somewhere. Heck, I've ridden without fare more than once, and appreciate the accommodation. But the openness of the system invites more than just a free ride, which is why it's surprising to see police on the train so rarely.

Anyone familiar with local propaganda in Portland knows transit crime has been much in the news lately. The fourth estate has found "outrage" over transit crime, and excitement bubbles from the pages as from children playing with a new toy. It's good Christmas marketing (shop downtown, you'll be safe), and while tempted to ask, why now, the real question is, why did it take so long to notice? The system is set up for crime. There is no security on the train, and between stations, if crime happens, where do you go?

I've been riding public transportation in Portland nearly everyday for 5 years, and saw my first police officer on the train this morning. In contrast, I've witnessed more than one criminal act, and the first was not recent. Understand, we are not talking felonies here, just the annoying, pain in the ass behavior no one likes to see. I saw a fist fight on a bus. More than once I've seen inebriated and momentarily enamored men fawn over unreceptive young women. Arguments are plenty, and sometimes domestic. The level of profanity in loud conversations is near intolerable, and lately, I now get panhandled when riding downtown. I've seen people smoke on the bus and drink on the train. None of this is really jail time crime, and not all of it is even crime, but it all adds up to an uncomfortable, unpleasant, journey that, even if not, is easy to perceive as threatening. Which gets thoroughly compounded by Portland's particular pains in the ass canvassing for political signatures on any number of petitions, OSPRIG drones and Greenpeace obnoxiously cluttering every platform downtown, and the endless, I mean endless, parade of panhandlers.

It's a mess that needs cleaning, and while we thankfully don't have the level of crime as other cities, we are but a step away. And even though the heat just add an additional hassle to the ride, their presence may get people to calm down a little. I question the commitment, however. When I saw the police officer this morning, he was the first I've seen on a train or bus ever. The first one in 5 years; the first one in what I estimate at a minimum of 2 trips a day, not always on weekends, and not counting transfers, about 3400 rides. Not surprisingly, I mentioned it, noting my surprise at finally seeing a cop on the train. His reply was characteristically direct, "we've been riding the train for 9 years." The truth is, no they haven't.

In Portland, they hang out in front of Peterson's, or park on the sidewalk next to Starbuck's at the US Bancorp Tower. In Beaverton, there is more of a police presence at the transit center, and to their credit, they occasionally get out of their cars, but understand that in both Beaverton, and Portland, the police do not ride on the trains. Gresham authorities are taking a very self congratulating public stand about putting cops on the trains, but, well, no shit. A 72 year old man was beaten with a baseball bat there last week while getting off the train. The Gresham police chief's response was, in essence, "we can't be everywhere." So no kidding they make a big production out of patrolling the transportation system. Finally

On the West Side, the mayor of Beaverton is trying to organize a transit police department for Washington County. This is good news, and has apparently been in the works for a while, but Beaverton has always seemed more proactive about transit security than elsewhere.

Overall, however, the commitment isn't real. Tri-Met, the transit authority, doesn't seem interested in security, and have offered the standard response of pledging to install cameras. Cameras don't stop a beating, or break up a drug deal. Plus they've taken a very cool attitude to the appearance of the Guardian Angels. The Angels have been in Portland a few years, but their interest is in helping people, not protecting property and business, so it's natural authority will not welcome them. The revisionist attitude displayed by the police officer on the train this morning is the real give away, however. If it seems they have always been there, the problem, then, must really not be any worse. And one has to assume it's all for show until transit crime is no longer front page news. Which should be sometime in early January I suppose.

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