Think Out Loud

Portland area’s TriMet responds to safety issues

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Sept. 13, 2023 5:02 p.m. Updated: Sept. 15, 2023 11:28 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Sept. 15

Portland police respond to reports of a stabbing on a TriMet MAX Light Rail train Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Southeast Portland, Ore.

Portland police respond to reports of a stabbing on a TriMet MAX Light Rail train Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Southeast Portland, Ore.

Photo courtesy of the Portland Police Bureau


After several recent attacks on TriMet passengers, the transportation agency has invested millions in hiring private security officers. In addition, the it will fund a prosecutor at the Multnomah County DA’s office to focus on TriMet crimes. The agency also recently announced the results of a study that found trace amounts of fentanyl on public transit surfaces in amounts that were not dangerous to the public. Meanwhile, TriMet ridership is down just over 30% from pre-pandemic levels, and the agency plans to increase fares by 12%. We talk to TriMet Chief Safety Officer Andrew Wilson and Dr. Rob Hendrickson, medical toxicologist at OHSU and director of the Oregon Poison Center.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to TriMet safety. After several recent attacks on TriMet passengers, the transportation agency is investing millions of dollars in hiring private security officers. It will also fund a prosecutor and investigators at the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office to focus on transit-based crimes. Meanwhile, the agency also recently announced the results of a study that found fentanyl on public transit surfaces but in miniscule amounts that they say are not dangerous to the public. Andrew Wilson is TriMet’s chief safety officer. Dr. Rob Hendrickson is a medical toxicologist at OHSU. And they both join me now. It’s great to have both of you on the show.

Dr. Rob Hendrickson: Thanks.

Andrew Wilson: Thanks for having us. I am a longtime listener, but it’s nice to be here in person.

Miller: It’s great to have you here. So Rob Hendrickson, first. The headlines last week were that fentanyl and methamphetamine were found on a number of services on max trains. But can you put the amount, say 0.01 billionths of a gram per square centimeter, in perspective?

Hendrickson: Sure. I think the key is that these are extremely small numbers. That square centimeter is about the size of your fingerprint. So how much fentanyl, for example, would you have found on a fingerprint if you touched the surface of a train? If you think about a white granulated sugar packet and you pour out that packet, you take one crystal of sugar. A nanogram is about 120 millionth of that crystal of sugar. So that’s how much would be on your finger. So clearly, it was detected but incredibly, incredibly small amounts and not enough to cause an effect in someone to cause fentanyl or methamphetamine toxicity.

Miller: My biggest takeaway from this report, really wasn’t even then about fentanyl. We know its use is all over it. It’s on the street a lot. My takeaway was that testing technology, assuming we can trust it, is unbelievably sensitive. What was your takeaway from this study?

Hendrickson: That was exactly what my initial thoughts were too. It’s not surprising at all if you test surfaces and air around where someone may have used drugs that you’re going to find some in really, really, really tiny amounts. And you’re right, it’s because of modern lab equipment that we can measure these incredibly small amounts, but I do think that it doesn’t reflect a risk to [TriMet] passengers or employees, but it does reflect that people are handling and using drugs in public places.

Miller: How do you feel about riding the MAX train or a bus or having members of your family do it?

Hendrickson: Yeah, I feel completely comfortable riding and I do use the train from time to time. My kids take the bus to and from school and we’re going to continue to do so without any concern at all about fentanyl or methamphetamine.

Miller: In the bigger picture, about three or four years ago, I remember seeing horror stories coming out about EMTs or police officers overdosing. That’s what the story said simply because they came in contact with somebody or evidence or paraphernalia. But those stories often felt anecdotal to me or sometimes like urban myths. How much truth was there?

Hendrickson: Yeah. I don’t know of any case where anyone has gotten intoxicated with fentanyl by being near it, but I think we have to put those things in perspective, right? Someone is burning something or heating something and when you inhale particles, they don’t have to be fentanyl. You can get symptoms, you can get itchy eyes, you can get a burning sensation in your nose, you can get a headache, you can get nausea. All of those things happen when things are burning, wood piles or tobacco smoke or cannabis smoke or anything else like that. So, certainly being near things that are being heated can cause symptoms, but I don’t know of any cases of anyone getting fentanyl toxicity.

Miller: Rob Hendrickson, thanks very much.

Hendrickson: You’re welcome.

Miller: Andrew Wilson is with us as I noted as well. He is TriMet’s chief safety officer. Unlike on city streets–and the city of Portland leaders are hoping to change this–the public use of drugs like fentanyl and meth is already illegal on TriMet trains and buses. How is it that people are still using it at times?


Wilson: Great question and with the prevalent behavior of just drug use in open TriMet public spaces, TriMet really tried to get ahead of some of this. And I want to make sure listeners understand that we actually were innovative and being a part of that particular study with the University of Washington. That was done by us, Sound Transit, King County Metro to really understand what those exposures were with this behavior occurring on the streets with it sometimes occurring on our trains and buses. So when we get to that point, we really want to understand those outcomes and really appreciate public health officials like Rob helping us really evaluate that data that we got back from that study.

Now having said that, we don’t want any findings on trains, buses and stations at all. And so what we’ve really heavily invested in is to keep that behavior from getting on to the transit system and we’ve done that primarily through, and you’ve heard me talk about, doubling our budget since 2020 related to safety and security. We’ve now doubled the amount of security officers on the system since 2022 to a total number of 315. So what we’re trying to do is keep that drug use from entering the system at all, whether that’s a bus train or a platform. It is illegal smoking in all of its kinds at TriMet and that’s just a constant presence issue for us to make sure it stays that way.

Miller: What happens if a police officer, and there are fewer of those than the hundreds of private security officers - you’re talking about what happens if they encounter somebody who is actively using drugs, say on a MAX train?

Wilson: Yeah. So we have a couple different ways that we respond to that. Number one and I think you recognize this, there’s an issue with just the lack of available law enforcement across the city of Portland. And so we have our own security teams dealing with those same issues as well. They can be issued a citation. They can be issued a citation also for trespass if they refuse to leave. So we deal with those situations as they come up. Law enforcement is often involved in those situations, but sometimes not because it’s difficult to get them to arrive at the scene. That’s why it’s so important for us to have our own personnel moderating behavior on the buses and trains.

Miller: I want to turn to broader questions about public safety on TriMet after some horrific attacks this year. And I’m sure our listeners remember the Jeremy Christian murders six years ago. We did ask folks on Facebook about their experiences on TriMet. We got 50 comments so far and counting.

Maya Taylor wrote, “I’ve been commuting downtown on TriMet for the past nine years. It’s fast and reliable and has allowed us to become a one car household. The new Rose Lane has made the commute even quicker.”

Marlene Howell likes it as well. She wrote, “It works well for me. I take it between outer Southeast and outer Southwest Portland a few times a week. The price is right for sure. Transfers are usually smooth and buses most often on time. I’ve seen some arguments but no explicit violence on the buses.”

We also heard this though from Katie Penna who wrote, “I’ve ridden TriMet a handful of times in the last two years and it just isn’t safe. There are folks openly doing drugs on the MAX and there are so many safety issues. So now I drive everywhere.”

And Anna Mara wrote, “It takes way too long and is not safe.”

What do you see as the biggest safety deficiencies right now?

Wilson: It’s a great question and we really do hear those comments and we’re dedicated to improving our ridership experience, particularly when it comes to safety. And safety is in focus, not just for us at TriMet but for everybody in the city of Portland right now. So that’s why it’s really critical for us to continue to build a presence out there on the system, to be able to provide that. We hear that from our riders. When they see a TriMet employee, a TriMet security officer, in close proximity to them, their experience is better. So we’re winning back our ridership related to that through the focus on increased presence on the system.

Now having said that, some of the things that are going around in the community we need help with, can’t fix a lot of the issues related to open drug use, clearly, and the lack of law enforcement in the area and some of the behaviors that are occurring out there. We are increasing our security presence to address those. We’ve also engaged in lots of other things. You’ll start to see our safety monitors which are surveillance cameras showing the inside of the bus if you’re riding a bus right now, increased operator protection and barriers out on our buses.

Miller: So I’m glad you mentioned the operator barriers. Over the years we’ve heard a lot of concerns from drivers or operators for their own safety. What are you doing to make sure that they are safe as they are ferrying Portlanders around?

Wilson: We have absolutely wonderful operators. I’m sure you’ve interacted with a lot of them. It’s really felt very closely when one of our operators is treated disrespectfully or assaulted. So we’ve really tried to mitigate that as much as possible. We have extended barriers. Now you’ll see those safety panels which are one level of protection. Another is increased security presence as you can see, that’s why we’re so focused on that, but also just better coordination with law enforcement partners and really standing up some groups to be able to just understand how we can tackle some of these real big societal issues that are out there together and TriMet is always at the table to do that.

Miller: Am I right that about a third of the budgeted police officers are actually on the TriMet force?

Wilson: Yeah, we’ve had a significant problem as have others in increasing the amount of transit police that are on the system.

Miller: PPB has said that they’re now–we just heard this yesterday– that more officers are coming online than are leaving and that that wasn’t the case for a long time, but is that not the case for you?

Wilson: It is. We’re slowly going to be building those numbers. You’re going to see that over the next several years, but we are dependent upon local law enforcement agencies to be able to obtain those personnel. And so as a result of that, as they are down officers, it’s very difficult for them to commit officers to transit. And so that’s something that we’re continually working on. Thankfully, we have some other tools now to be able to get after some of the behavior issues on the train in different positions. Like our customer safety supervisors, a lot of people have seen our safety response team out there dealing with some mental health and behavioral issues. So we’re developing those teams at the same time, we’re trying to recruit back our officers.

Miller: Andrew Wilson, thanks very much. Andrew Wilson is the chief safety officer for TriMet. We also heard from Rob Hendrickson, the medical director of the Oregon Poison Center and a medical toxicologist at OHSU.

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