Police officers would be prohibited from helping enforce public transit fares under a proposal Oregon lawmakers will consider in February.

Among more than 250 pieces of legislation filed for this year’s legislative session is a bill from Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, which would ensure that police have no hand in helping TriMet and other transit systems cite people who don’t pay their fare.

A TriMet MAX train glides past Pioneer Courthouse in downtown Portland.

A TriMet MAX train glides past Pioneer Courthouse in downtown Portland.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Under the bill, House Bill 4097, police would be unable to  “conduct or participate” in any fare enforcement.

The bill marks the second time Hernandez has pushed for the change. He was moved to act after one of his constituents, Ana del Rocío, was stopped and arrested during a fare-enforcement operation in 2018. A circuit court judge wound up ruling that del Rocío’s constitutional rights were violated in the incident.

“For me this is unfinished business,” said Hernandez, whose 2019 effort received only a single hearing. “Fare evasion is a civil penalty. To have police present in doing fare enforcement doesn’t really make sense.”

TriMet leaders disagree. Last year, the agency argued that police officers provide needed assistance for its fare enforcers, both in identifying passengers who have not paid and handling other potential problems as they arise.

The agency’s legal services director, Erik Van Hagen, told lawmakers at the time that police are necessary to provide a “safety presence” for TriMet staff and passengers in general. Van Hagen said that TriMet employees are the only ones who actually write up people for fare evasion, which is not a crime.

TriMet issues around 20,000 citations every year. The agency has taken steps in recent years to help people avoid interactions with the courts system, including giving offenders 90 days to address a citation before it is forwarded to a civil court.

“TriMet will continue to oppose legislation that prevents police from assisting in our fare enforcement efforts,” TriMet spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt said Monday. “TriMet needs the flexibility for police officers to assist in fare enforcement efforts and, as needed, provide safety for our employees and riders during fare checks.”

Altstadt added that TriMet has an estimated 18% fare evasion rate. “We are working to get more eyes and ears on our system, and we need to keep all of our fare enforcement options available,” she said in an email.

In emails last year, TriMet told lawmakers that law enforcement officers often used fare enforcement actions to find people with active warrants, a practice it contended makes the system safer.

“I understand that there is some concern about allowing TPD officers to ‘troll’ for warrants, but it is important to understand that in order for a police officer to run a warrant check, the rider must have first violated TriMet code,” TriMet government affairs director Aaron Deas told legislators.

“TriMet does not want to be responsible for a scenario where a wanted criminal who was recently fare inspected by a Transit Police officer and was cited and let go because our police officer was disallowed from running a warrant check.”

TriMet’s emphasis on enforcement spurred backlash last year, when the agency announced it would be adding nine new fare inspectors to the system. “Complaints about people hopping on board without paying are among the most common we get,” the agency said in a tweet at the time.

Critics responded that fare enforcement — which often involves TriMet employees and uniformed police working in tandem — can make some riders feel unsafe. Some argued the agency was exaggerating concerns it heard about people dodging fares. OPB reported the agency documented just eight complaints on the issue in the two months preceding its announcement of more fare enforcers.

Hernandez says his concern is that fare enforcement can lead to profiling. If police are involved, he believes it puts people of color at heightened risk of having unwelcome contact with law enforcement.

“The police could still do public safety and be there for other reasons,” he said. “When it comes to fare enforcement, leave that up to fare enforcement officials of TriMet.”

Hernandez said he’s lined up support from community groups such as Latino Network and the Coalition of Communities of Color.

And the bill might have an extra leg up this year. Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, is sponsoring it alongside Hernandez. She’s also the newly named chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which will be considering the legislation.