Tha Community v The Public
When Portland starting slashing away at police services in 2020 to appease the police abolitionist insurgency holding the city hostage with nightly BLM rioting, it started with three programs abolitionists had long been after, because they’re responsible for putting the most Blacks! in jail (and, not coincidentally, preventing the most crime): the gang unit, school cops and the city’s contribution to policing the city’s transit.
As the city saw its homicide rate explode, with the vast majority of murders by gun–and knucklehead–the gang unit was partly reconstituted under a new set of rules within months. Schoolchildren and teachers are presumably still on their own in dealing with black bullies. There’s always online elementary school, ads for which have recently appeared on city buses. Speaking of the condition of our transit, this progressive city’s pride, it has predictably (though no one here dared actually predict it, of course) suffered; violence on trains and buses is making it hard to retain drivers:
PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — On the same day TriMet announced they’re facing its worst hiring issues and staff shortages in its history, one of its drivers was assaulted on the 75 Bus Route near Hawthorne and Cesear Chavez boulevards.
Dispatch audio recorded the driver saying she was hit on and spit by Michelle Hamberg, who records show has several charges of interfering with public transportation, including third-degree assault in January.
“Operator assaults are on the rise,” said Shirley Block, the president of ATU Local 757.
ATU Local 757 says Wednesday’s assault was one of seven it has tracked on the transit system this month. The Multnomah County District Attorney’s office reports 50 open cases of felony assaults in the TriMet system.
It’s a constant in America that Black! criminal violence and bad behavior degrades public transit, like most pubic spaces, a contradiction between two progressive passions: mass transit and Black! privilege (as “civil rights”). But Portland, despite affecting a vibrant and essential Black! history as part of the broader history of the city and state’s Legacy of Racism and White Supremacy, has never had a large enough Black! population to degrade life as much as most bigger cities. Not for a lack of trying, as you see.
The past two years of vastly reduced policing have seen an increase in Black! criminality and audacity in public (if you live in a city with a significant Black! population you’ve seen it: traditional obnoxious Black! behavior in public–“white”–spaces has noticeably increased since 2020 ushered in the Racial Reckoning). But in Portland the twin problems of mental illness and drug abuse match or exceed the problem of Black! malice. No mean feat. Let’s hear it for the Crazies and Druggies.
The city’s transit authority, Trimet, is cancelling projects as revenue drops. Transit ridership is down, staff is short and lines are being cut. But, rest assured
While most of the affected lines currently see low ridership, TriMet took a balanced and careful approach with an eye on preserving service in areas with high concentrations of people with low-incomes and communities of color.
Transit was not completely abandoned by law enforcement–Mayor Wheeler pulled Portland’s contribution to the transit detail, still staffed by officers from other municipalities such as county sheriffs (who I’m sure are very appreciative of the city’s action). Trimet has its own police–a total of 21 cops despite budgeting for 64. Ridership is down, cops are fewer and bad behavior is up.
So Trimet is preparing to put more police on trains. This has the abolitionist side up in arms. Someone leaked a memo to the citys abolitionist free weekly The Portland Mercury:
TriMet plans to increase transit police on and around the transit system in part due to an alleged increase in drug use on buses and MAX trains, according to an internal agency memo. The increase in transit police and other security officers will not exceed the agency’s budgeted positions, according to TriMet.
On July 27, TriMet sent a memo to employees titled “What to Know About Drug Inhalation on System” that noted the surge of fentanyl use in Oregon over the past three years. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin and significantly cheaper to produce. Health experts believe that increased access to fentanyl has contributed to the 41 percent increase in overdose deaths in Oregon over the past year—nationally, overdose deaths climbed 16 percent in the same time period.
According to the internal agency memo that was shared with the Mercury, the increase in fentanyl use has led to more frequent use of drugs in public spaces, including on and around TriMet buses and trains. Employees have been “understandably concerned about how exposure to smoke from this drug use may affect their health and ability to pass drug tests,” according to the memo, so TriMet has made two changes—a new policy to air out buses and an increased frequency of transit police “enforcement missions.”
According to TriMet spokesperson Roberta Altstadt, the agency wants to increase the number of transit police officers on the TriMet system to handle a variety of “nuisances,” not just drug use. While the agency has a budget for 64 security officers, only 21 of those positions are currently filled.
We don’t know what’s in the entirety of the memo but The Mercury’s report focuses on alleged “misinformation” regarding fentanyl.
The health risks of being exposed to secondhand fentanyl smoke are low. A study by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention—which is cited in the TriMet memo—found that exposure to fentanyl smoke creates little to no detectable fentanyl exposure.
Misinformation around fentanyl inhalation, however, is prominent online and fueled in part by the federal government. In 2016, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) claimed that two police officers experienced a fentanyl “overdose event” after inhaling secondhand fentanyl smoke, incorrectly stating that exposure to secondhand fentanyl or absorption of the drug through the skin can trigger a fatal overdose. While the DEA later pulled the statement, a 2019 study found that the DEA announcement was a key part of fueling “fentanyl panic” online.
Whether or not fentanyl “contact overdose” is a fallacy I don’t know. But it still seems reasonable to spare riders the secondhand smoke of an often fatal drug. Is the notion of a “contact high” bogus also? Is the criterion for allowable now: will not produce overdose?
Trimet surveyed riders in 2020 as it “reimagined public safety”; though it seems the biggest concern in those heady days when the city was held hostage by BLM rioting was Black! and brown sensitivity about the sight of police (some might call it “fragility”):
For some riders, increased security presence can be a comfort. For others, transit police and other security staff are perceived as a threat on public transit.
Following the murder of George Floyd and inception of the 2020 protests for racial justice, TriMet launched a significant effort to “reimagine public safety” on transit, garnering survey responses from 13,000 riders and developing a committee to make recommendations to the agency. Discrimination against non-white and low-income riders by transit security was a rider concern long before the racial justice protests, although TriMet points to two independent studies that indicated no racial bias in TriMet fare enforcement and citations. Those two studies, however, were performed with incomplete data.
In the reimagining public safety surveys, riders overwhelmingly said they wanted an increase in unarmed support services on TriMet, which prompted TriMet to remove six transit police positions and reallocate the money towards a new Safety Response Team—TriMet safety employees who carry backpacks full of snacks, dry socks, hand warmers, and other supplies to hand out to riders in need. Safety Response Team members, while barred from giving out citations for code violations, are also intended to deter poor behavior just by being present and visible on the transit system.
To Maia Vásconez-Taylor, an organizer with bus rider advocacy group Bus Riders Unite, it’s inaccurate to assert that increasing the presence of armed transit police puts all riders at ease.
The Mercury found a bus driver sympathetic to their point of view:
“TriMet keeps trying to make itself palatable for the West Hills techies that drive their Teslas to work anyway,” he said.
The bus driver said that he doesn’t anticipate the new airing out policy to work like the agency envisions. According to the operator, any TriMet policy that requires the bus to delay its schedule leads to riders getting upset with drivers who are required to follow the policy.
“Even if it’s for a really good reason, [riders] don’t care—they need to get where they’re going,” the operator said. “It’s clearly a policy that was done by somebody who never actually worked the job.”
I’m not a bus driver but I’ve ridden one, and I know there’s a broad swath from”don’t care” to “will endure.”
Vásconez-Taylor said that the new policy to air out the buses is already having the opposite effect herTriMet is hoping for. Vásconez-Taylor recently heard from a rider who saw someone smoking drugs on a TriMet bus. While the experience was concerning, another rider convinced others not to alert the bus driver because they didn’t want the driver to stop and air out the bus for 15 minutes, delaying the late night bus trip.
“It’s going to stop people from reporting the usage,” Vásconez-Taylor said.
That’s undoubtedly true. As with every change imposed by the “reimagining” of law and order, it imposes on the citizen new adaptations to new degradations. Your bus is filled with fentanyl smoke? Just breath deep and think of Justice.