An assault by five teenagers on a North Portland MAX train this week revived worries about mass transit safety since several high-profile incidents last winter.
Teenage boys and girls punched, used racial epithets and stole the purse of a 28-year-old Vancouver woman who was taking her first-ever MAX ride early Monday evening. The woman, who is white, had just had a conversation with the teens, who are African American and were harassing another woman, according to Portland police.
"It was completely traumatizing and absolutely horrifying for me," said the Vancouver woman, who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation. "It seemed like forever."
The attack renewed calls for more security on the region's light-rail system. And it raised warnings that the close of the school year this week could be the beginning of a summer of criminal activity by some teenagers.
News of the woman's assault on the MAX Yellow Line, on North Interstate Avenue, triggered quick association with a November attack at a Gresham MAX stop that sparked regionwide outrage. A 16-year-old boy on Thursday was sentenced to 91/2 years in prison for that attack, in which he used a baseball bat to bludgeon a man, then 71.
Weeks after the beating, a 19-year-old man was stabbed in the chest at the Rockwood Transit Center, and on Christmas Eve a woman was groped at a MAX stop in Gresham.
The timing couldn't be worse. Motorists in Portland and nationwide are turning to mass transit in record numbers --May ridership was up more than 4 percent --to avoid high gas prices. And with two new rail services under construction --and extensions to Vancouver and Milwaukie in the planning stages --fear of crime threatens to stymie rail expansion.
Sam Schwarz, vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union chapter that represents TriMet drivers, said the agency needs to hire more fare inspectors and supervisors who enforce rules of conduct on trains and buses.
"By enforcing the law and the TriMet codes, they would probably reduce the incidents," Schwarz said. "The drivers and the transit workers don't feel 100 percent safe."
TriMet employees usually suffer more harassment from teens during summer, Schwarz said.
Yet it is the public's perception of risk --and TriMet's manner of dealing with the incidents --that was brought to the fore by this week's attack on the Vancouver woman.
Mary Fetsch, a TriMet spokeswoman, said the agency responded by beefing up patrols by transit police, fare inspectors and supervisors in the area.
"Unfortunately, we will never be able to prevent all incidents," Fetsch said. "We move over 330,000 people a day on our entire transit system. So what we watch for is, what's happening? Do we need to put additional security personnel and presence at a certain location?"
The November beating in Gresham had sparked cries for greater police presence throughout the MAX system. The agency has grown its transit police force from 28 officers to 41, and plans to hire two more by July 1. It added two transit police precincts, contract security guards, closed-circuit TV cameras and improved lighting and sight lines at MAX platforms. It also changed its policies to allow 50 uniformed supervisors who ride MAX trains to check for fares.
TriMet has also contracted with rider advocates, former gang members who work with youth to prevent gang activity on the MAX system.
Police said they have arrested four youths ages 14 to 16 suspected in the Monday assault. A fifth teenager is still at large, and officials released security camera video of the incident in hopes that the public can help identify the thin, 5-foot-6 suspect wearing light-colored clothing and going by the name Adrian.
Police said the teens initially called the Vancouver woman racially derogatory names. Then, as the train approached a station at North Interstate Avenue and North Prescott Street, they started punching her, police said.
The woman said a boy stole her purse and ran from the train after it stopped. A mix of boys and girls repeatedly punched her, and some girls hit her with purses. She said she also was hit with a can of beer.
She said the attack escalated when the group turned on her while harassing another, older woman, who had asked the teens to tone down their act. There was no transit security on the train, she said.
"I did not intervene," the Vancouver woman said, adding that she had tried to ignore them. "They got in my face.
"Finally, I just said, 'I don't care what color you are, if I want you out of my face, I'd tell you to get out of my face.' "
That's when the teens got physical. She said she tried to fight back but was punched and stepped on.
"Then they took my purse, and then they ran out" of the train, she said. "And then I was standing at the door, on the phone with 9-1-1 because nobody would call."
The four teens are accused of robbery, assault and intimidation. The intimidation count stems from the alleged racial comments, said Sgt. Brian Schmautz, a police spokesman.
Fetsch, the TriMet spokeswoman, said the train operator alerted transit dispatchers that there was a fight on board the train and to call police.
Aimee Green, Wade Nkrumah and Joseph Rose of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.