The Portland Business Alliance’s New TriMet-Based Pipeline for Indentured Labor


I want to expand on something I brought up in my critique of TriMet’s new business plan: the company’s new partnership with Portland Patrol, Inc. to create a new kind of security presence on transit, called “Transit Peace Officers.” Specifically, I want to elaborate on my fear that the PPI contract, in concert with TriMet’s new fine-or-community-service system to resolve fare evasion citations, creates a mechanism for the Portland Business Alliance to effectively force low-income folks to provide free labor for the Clean & Safe Program.

I know that sounds conspiratorial. Bear with me.

Portland Patrol, Inc. and Transit Peace Officers

Back in January, TriMet leadership announced that they were embarking on a new partnership with Portland Patrol, Inc. to create a new class of security workers on transit, so-called “Transit Peace Officers.” The idea is to increase the number of folks on buses and MAX trains who are responsible for enforcing the TriMet Code, and also to project what TriMet calls a “security presence” on transit. That’s in addition to the existing Fare Inspectors (the ones who wear white shirts with TriMet badges on the arm), Transit Police Officers working under contract with TriMet, and the G4S security officers who are charged with, well, just standing there and looking like security.

Before we even get into implementation, let’s start with the obvious: putting more uniformed security officers on transit, especially those with the power to cite folks, is not the same thing as affirmatively promoting safety. Police, quasi-police, and prisons do not make us safer, full stop. Sure, it might make SOME riders feel more safe, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that’s going to be mostly limited to well-to-do white folks. Especially because, despite TriMet propaganda to the contrary, they already have a racial profiling issue in fare enforcement.

We’ve had a community-centered safety program before: the 1994–2009 Rider Advocate Program. TriMet contracted with the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods to put folks on the bus who were trained in conflict resolution, de-escalation, and crisis intervention. These folks were chosen from the North and Northeast Portland communities where they were working, and they weren’t armed or wearing militaristic uniforms. And as a result, they were basically universally beloved. A lot of the bus operators I organize talk about how they felt much safer with Rider Advocates on their buses, and have story after story about Rider Advocates successfully and nonviolently intervening in tough situations. Quick plug: OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon is trying to bring that program back, and you should support them with your time or money.

But TriMet has decided to charge full steam ahead on the militarized option, these new Transit Peace Officers, through Portland Patrol, Inc. (PPI).

PPI is a private security contractor “providing armed and unarmed security services in the Portland Metro area, since 1997.” Their employees are certified by the state’s safety agency, the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. And many, if not most, of their employees are former police officers or have served in the military. Others go on to have later careers in law enforcement. In effect, it’s a fully private police force employed by businesses to do whatever it is that those businesses need, with a revolving door to local law enforcement agencies.

Clean & Safe

PPI is also an integral part of Portland’s Clean & Safe Program. Clean & Safe is a large geographic district downtown, created first by local businesses in 1988, authorized by the Portland City Council in 1991, then reauthorized in 2001 and 2011. One of the district’s flagship programs is providing security services to downtown businesses, through Portland Patrol Inc.:

The district works with the Portland Police Bureau and the District Attorney’s office to provide enhanced public safety services in the downtown area. Private security officers — many of whom are former police officers — patrol the district on foot and on bicycle seven days a week.”

Clean & Safe has another dimension: it’s part of the local Community Court program, and is where folks sentenced to community service are forced to work as a condition of their sentences. Between August 2002 and July 2012, 15,561 people were ordered by the court to perform community service. Those folks are forced to do leaf and trash pickup for downtown businesses in the Clean & Safe District.

Alternatives on fare evasion

TriMet, to its credit, recently started a move away from more-punitive options to deal with fare evasion citations. Moving forward, folks who are cited will have the option of paying a fine or performing community service in order to resolve the citation. The better option would be abolishing fares entirely, but let’s hold that thought until the end.

If you’re cited for fare evasion, you’ll have to perform between 4 and 15 hours of community service. According to TriMet, the community service program “will work with existing community based organizations that will provide participants with a wide range of options for completing community service, including weekend volunteer shifts, and shifts outside of normal business hours.” Although it’s ambiguous as to which organizations will be involved, it’s reasonable to expect that at least some of those cited will end up working with Clean & Safe.

Putting it all together

So, here’s what this all looks like in practice: you’re riding the MAX without a fare because you can’t afford to ride otherwise, but still need to get where you’re going. You’re not having great luck today, because you see a major fare enforcement action as you pull into Rose Quarter TC. A Portland Patrol, Inc.-employed Transit Peace Officer stops you and cites you for fare evasion. PPI, of course, has an intimate relationship with the Portland Police Bureau and the DA, and it’s the security arm of the Clean & Safe District. You know, that same Clean & Safe District that you’re now legally obligated to clean on behalf of the Portland Business Alliance. The same PBA which reflexively fights revenue measures that might have paid for better transit service and lower fares.

Pretty sweet deal for the Portland Business Alliance and Clean & Safe, isn’t it?

Conclusion and solutions

PBA has been escalating its attacks on our unhoused neighbors downtown, cloaking it in seemingly-neutral concerns about “crime” and “livability issues” downtown. And, of course, that means “livability” for middle- to upper-class folks, and tourists, not for the folks forced by economic circumstances to live on the street. The PBA has the ear of Ted Wheeler, who was recently caught promising Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle a greater police presence to harass unhoused folks away from the Columbia headquarters downtown. Combine that with the City’s sweeps of self-managed camps and their official support for ODOT’s sweeps of camps along highways, and it doesn’t seem like this sort of scheme would receive a lot of pushback from the Mayor’s office.

Clean & Safe is part and parcel of the PBA’s strategy for sanitizing downtown, and sweeping unhoused folks to the far corners of Portland, and beyond. So, taking all of this together, there is both a mechanism and incentive to deploy folks who have been cited for fare evasion as an indentured labor force to “clean up” downtown — that is, participate in the forced displacement of already-displaced already-unhoused people. That’s scary as hell.

There are a few ways of addressing this issue. The easiest would be to write TriMet’s fare evasion policy in such a way that those sentenced to community service would not be forced to do that service through Clean & Safe. You’d probably need to adjust the policies of the Community Court program, but there’s no structural barrier to doing so.

But the best option would be to eliminate fares on public transit in Portland. Only about 20% of TriMet’s budget comes from fare revenue, and the company has the legal authority to raise revenue in all kinds of ways that are currently unused or underutilized. Fare-free transit combined with expanded service and the electrification of TriMet’s bus fleet would be a clear boost for the environment, as it would make it that much easier for folks to choose transit instead of single-occupancy vehicles. And giving all residents the absolute right to navigate the city they live in — the right to mobility — is an absolute public good.

Fare-free isn’t some pie-in-the-sky goal — after all, if Corvallis can make public transit freely available, Portland can figure out a way to do it. Heck, you don’t even need TriMet’s go-ahead to do it: local jurisdictions could pass local option income tax levies on high-income earners, and use those funds to provide subsidized HOP cards to their residents with $100 loaded on them (that’s the cost of a monthly pass and the current monthly cap on HOP fares).

But regardless of how you do it, let’s not hand the Portland Business Alliance a pathway to force poor folks to “clean up” downtown so that wealthy CEOs don’t have to mix with the rabble.